The governor listened patiently. And he’s waiting to hear more.
Gov. Haley Barbour spoke to more than 100 members of the Mississippi Furniture Association (MFA) October 16 but left them standing, cocktails in hand, wondering what, if anything, he might eventually do to help them bolster their Northeast Mississippi-based industry.
“We’re willing to do what we have to do as long as it’s fair to the taxpayer,” Barbour told the gathering.
Standing later in front of a “Come Home” sign, a motto aimed at bringing furniture makers and suppliers back to domestic production and supplying, Barbour said that he would wait for MFA to formulate a list of its wants and needs before committing to anything.
MFA president Ken Pruett, a furniture component maker in the Pontotoc area, pointed out in his opening presentation that, while more than 6,000 jobs had been lost from the furniture industry in the past few years, it still employs 24,000 workers. The annual payroll of $680 million, he noted, makes it the largest industry in Mississippi.
“We are the 900-pound gorilla, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be obnoxious,” said Pruett. “We’re coming together as an industry. What we want to do is get some attention.”
Pruett said that the furniture manufacturing industry was born from an entrepreneurial spirit of its early practitioners. That independent spirit has been the trademark of manufacturers for the past several decades that furniture has ruled in the region.
Those days must end, Pruett said, explaining that furniture companies must band together to combat the influx of Chinese-made goods.
And they must receive some of the same benefits that have been gifted to other industries. “We’re looking at some incentives,” said Pruett. “If it’s good enough for steel mills and the automobile industry, it’s good enough for the furniture industry.”
Pruett referred to multi-million dollar packages of state giveaways to SeverCorr steel in Lowndes County, Nissan near Canton, Toyota in Union County and myriad others. Pruett and his colleagues are not ashamed that those packages have inspired them to seek some of their own.
Among the items outlined by Pruett — and there were few of them presented last week — is a move to pass legislation to provide $2,000 in tax exemptions for every new cut-and-sew job brought back from overseas. He would like to see it made good for 10 years, but said MFA would be willing to negotiate that point — and many others, for that matter.
For his part, Barbour suggested that continuing education and implementation of high technology might be the answer for some of the furniture industry’s woes. But it will come at a price.
“If you make the same amount of furniture,” Barbour said, “(in the future) you’re going to have to do it with fewer people.”
MFA board member Larry Lee, president of 120-employee Cottage Lane Furniture Inc. in Calhoun City, said that he indeed would like to update his equipment to include computerized upholstery and plywood cutting equipment. But he’s between the proverbial rock and hard place.
“I had tax exemptions,” he explained of monies that Cottage Lane could use for automation, “but they expired 10 years ago. Toyota is being given things that the furniture industry never asked for. We want some of the same things.”
Barbour may be discovering he’s on a slippery slope after spearheading millions of dollars in incentives for industries locating to the state. The furniture industry is the first, and probably not the last, to react to what it perceives as being treated as the proverbial redheaded stepchild.
“Unlike some people,” Barbour promised the gathering, “I haven’t given up on the furniture industry in Mississippi.”
Whether he will be able to convince those gathered at the meeting in the Tupelo Furniture Market of that sentiment remains to be seen.