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Wide open race for Wicker’s First District seat in Congress

Perhaps more than any in Mississippi in recent memory, the First Congressional District has benefited from its congressman having gained some seniority in Washington, leading to plum committee appointments like the one Roger Wicker held on the Appropriations Committee.

Before Wicker, Jamie Whitten was one of the most powerful congressmen in D.C.

Wicker (R-Tupelo) now is Mississippi’s interim senator, filling the seat left vacant by Trent Lott’s retirement. Wicker faces election in November.

Wide open

But Wicker’s old job representing Northeast Mississippi is up for grabs, and eight candidates have qualified to run. A primary on March 11 will pare down the field; a runoff will be two weeks later. The top vote-getter from each party will then advance to the general election November 4.

With a new representative, the district will not be at the front of the line when it’s time to dole out federal dollars for special projects.

“The seniority system has been incredibly good for this district,” said Tim Climer, executive director of the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance.

Climer said small towns like West Point are usually the major beneficiaries of earmarks, funding slipped into unrelated legislation that goes toward projects that range anywhere from a new bridge to money for economic development.

There has been a backlash recently against such earmarks — during his State of the Union address in January, President Bush promised to veto any bills that had them attached — leaving Climer to hope whoever wins the district’s congressional seat can somehow wield enough influence to steer some economic development dollars home.

“There’s definitely been a movement against (earmarks),” Climer said. “We don’t consider them wasteful. We consider them necessary investments, especially when it comes to the defense industry. You’re talking about things that can improve national security.”

Defense spending

West Point and the Golden Triangle have been the beneficiaries of defense industry spending, being the home of Aurora Flight Sciences’ fabrication, design and assembly plant that manufactures aerostructures for the United States military. Phase II of the plant’s expansion is currently underway with the building of a 66,000-square-foot addition that will meet the demand for future projects. The area is also home to American Eurocopter’s assembly plant that puts the finishing touches on helicopters.

Climer wants the district’s new congressman to continue the momentum these projects have created.

“That’s going to be a priority,” Climer said. “That and making sure economic climate is positive.”

I-55 development corridor

In the northwest portion of the district, Batesville has landed a plant run by General Electric that will build aviation components. The plant is expected to begin operation in early 2009.

Projects like the GE plant have fueled the economic boom the region has experienced. Sonny Simmons, CEO of Panola Partnership, said the I-55 corridor would be looked upon as a fertile economic growth area because of all the people and businesses moving south from Memphis.

“This whole region is growing quickly,” Simmons said. “We need some help with infrastructure. Roads need improving.” Simmons said his group is working to identify industrial property in the county and preparing to pitch it to potential developers.

Simmons said he and a group of economic development officials from Batesville will travel to Washington in March to meet with the area’s congressional delegation about the economic needs of the region and how best to fund them.

“We’re not going up there with our hands out,” Simmons said, adding that the City of Batesville and Panola County were willing to issue bonds to pay for projects. “We’re willing to do our part.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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