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Wellspring: two sides offer opinions on megasite

While Gov. Haley Barbour said last week in a Northeast Mississippi newspaper interview that it does not make sense to spend state funds to prepare the region’s Wellspring project site until a company commits to building there, the site’s advocates say that they will move forward with their strategy of attracting automobile manufacturing jobs to the region.

Prior to the governor’s remarks, a delegation of 48 regional economic development, civic and business leaders met in Jackson with a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee to outline the group’s objectives and rationale in seeking support for the Wellspring initiative, which they believe will fuel their quest for automotive industry jobs. Feedback was generally strongly positive.

Wellspring, which was developed by an alliance of Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties and their municipalities, has the option to buy about 1,700 acres where the three counties meet near Blue Springs. The group is asking the state to issue $14.5 million in bonds to match $4.5 million in local funds to purchase and prepare the land in an effort to make it attractive to a potential large manufacturer. Supporters said that the site’s appearance with hills and woodlands make the visualization of an assembly plant difficult.

Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation president David Rumbarger said that the group’s “Plan A,” so to speak, would envision Wellspring as the site of a major automotive manufacturer, while “Plan B” would utilize it as a multi-county industrial park that could serve automotive components manufacturers and suppliers. Regional business and civic leaders stressed the project’s importance given an increasingly global furniture manufacturing environment and the loss of jobs to overseas’ competitors.

Noting the planning, cooperation and research that has gone into the Wellspring effort, Rumbarger said he was pleased with what he deemed as a very favorable response from legislators who have met with the group to date. While recognizing the governor’s concerns, Rumbarger said that the alliance will continue to seek legislative support for the effort, given its importance in enhancing the region’s and state’s economic diversity.

While some have questioned the timing of the Wellspring request, given the state’s rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina, Rumbarger said Wellspring underscores the importance of ongoing economic development in all areas of the state. Rumbarger stated that Northeast Mississippi must look forward and take action because the area is losing furniture manufacturing jobs to China and Vietnam.

Automotive industry manufacturing is particularly attractive given Northeast Mississippi’s proximity to areas in Alabama, Tennessee and Central Mississippi where automotive manufacturers have already established operations. Rumbarger added that if Northeast Mississippi attracted a major manufacturer, the revenue stream back to the state would be advantageous for everyone.

“We believe that a cooperative initiative such as this will give Mississippi an extra edge in competing for these types of jobs,” Rumbarger asserted. “While we are mindful of the impact of other events in our state, it would be irresponsible for us to stand still when the competition is moving ahead,” Rumbarger said.

Billy Crews, publisher of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and a member of the Northeast Mississippi delegation that traveled to Jackson , underscored the importance of the project by pointing to Northeast Mississippi’s proactive track record in addressing economic development challenges and opportunities in a cooperative way. He reiterated that the region must take a leadership role in transitioning the diversity of the economy.

While Barbour issued praise for the project’s location, infrastructure and leadership in the Wellspring media interview, he questioned the prudence of taking taxpayers’ money to buy the land without a specific commitment. He added that if Wellspring received help under those circumstances, then other sites would request and expect state aid before a company committed to a location. Additionally, Barbour stated that a major industry might want to make site clearing/grading decisions on their own after selecting the site.

Scott Hamilton, Mississippi Development Authority director of communications, said that to his knowledge, the state has not been financially involved in purchasing a site for a local community development group before a specific project is identified and committed.

Dr. William Shughart, a University of Mississippi economics professor, said that he is skeptical by what he described as the alliance’s “build-it-and-they-will-come” mindset.

“Unfortunately, the alliance apparently has no specific tenant in mind,” Shughart said. “The Alliance’s fallback position is to prepare the site anyway, creating a mega-industrial park that will attract other not-yet-identified employers to the region.”

Wellspring advocates said that while the project may be deemed “unprecedented,” competitive conditions demand bold initiatives. According to Rumbarger, “When you look at the history of the region and of CDF, we see it as a positive to take the initiative-the levels of commitment and cooperation that are reflected within the development of the PUL alliance are evidence of that.”

Pontotoc Mayor Bill Rutledge agreed that the region has a track record of fulfilling its commitments and working collaboratively toward cooperative goals. For example, earlier this year, the location was designated as a megasite by the Tennessee Valley Authority, meaning that it meets the infrastructure requirements that are necessary to support a larger manufacturing facility, such as one oriented toward automotives, Rutledge noted.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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