When more than 200 economic developers, site selection scouts and automotive industry leaders and consultants from a 17-state area gathered at The Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham June 15-17 for the latest installment of the Southern Economic Development Council (SEDC) professional development series, Mississippi had the most representatives with more than 30 economic development professionals.
“We even had more than Alabama,” said Duane O’Neill with a chuckle.
O’Neill, executive director of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, chaired the automotive and logistics seminar for the third consecutive year, and expanded the program from strictly automotive to include the distribution and logistics sector, with a heavy emphasis on technology.
The real deals
“In past years, before automotive was the big buzz, we really needed to somehow get together with consultants around the country and see if there was any way we had enough clout to bring some top site selection and real estate consultants into an area,” said O’Neill. “At that time, we were thinking about having five or six. This year, we had 10 consultants, and three to four major real estate firms, and it gave all the participants a chance to meet the folks that are carrying around the real deals.”
Even though the seminar officially began Wednesday morning, the SEDC group co-sponsored a Tuesday evening reception at the end of Automotive News’ biannual automotive conference.
“We moved our seminar to Birmingham so we could have Lindsay Chappell (Mid-South bureau chief of Automotive News) and Lindsay’s boss, David Sedgwick, keynote our first luncheon,” said O’Neill. “We also tagged their meeting, which ran Sunday through Tuesday, so some folks had a full week of networking. At the end of the Tuesday reception, we came away with a number of contacts, including a Canadian supplier working with Asian firms, that we’re now collaborating with on a couple of projects for the metro area.”
The first-day agenda included facility tours of the Mercedes automotive plant and Saks Fifth Avenue distribution center, followed by lunch with Chappell and Sedgwick. “David Sedgwick … set the stage because he has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” said O’Neill. “He went through each major automaker and talked about which ones could expand, which ones were closing plants, who was looking and not looking at the South, and if so where, and which vehicles they’d make to enter the market. We came away satisfied that we’re still in the infancy of the automotive industry in the South.”
On Thursday morning, Buzz Canup kicked off the day’s activities as keynote speaker of the breakfast meeting. “Buzz gave everyone a history of how the Nissan project progressed, and told folks like me what we have to do if we’re fortunate enough to land an automaker,” said Tim Coursey, executive director of the Madison County Economic Development Authority. “When the announcement is made, the work has just begun. It takes an unbelievable amount of preparation and timing to make a project successful.”
The three-day event included numerous panel discussions and plenty of networking opportunities.
“In the past year, when the wrapped up Q&A sessions after panel discussions, we’d have a long line of 50 or 60 people wanting to talk to these guys,” said O’Neill. “We quickly learned that people wanted to meet each one personally and not just ask a question from the audience, so we restructured the seminar to accommodate that.”
Haley Fisackerly, vice president of customer operations for Entergy Mississippi, a subsidiary of New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation and a major event sponsor, called the conference “one of the best I’ve ever attended, period.”
“I was very impressed with the program lineup and the messages were consistent throughout the program,” he said. “There was no choreography. Each speaker delivered a very pertinent message and really focused on where we need to focus our energy and resources to be competitive in the economic development arena.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.