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Regionalism roundtable discussion a highlight of annual meeting

Political and business leaders gathered May 7 at the Jackson Marriott for the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting, and in one of the sessions, regionalism was on the menu.

Panelists were: Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation; George Freeland Jr., executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation; and, Whit Hughes, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority.

Freeland and other economic development officials on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts have joined hands in an effort to attract projects affiliated with that area’s thriving aerospace industry, led by Hancock County’s John C. Stennis Space Center, which tests rocket engines for NASA.

“The Mississippi Coast is not some passive participant in the aerospace industry,” Freeland said. “We are a leader in aerospace development.”

The goal, Freeland said, is to make Mississippi and Alabama’s Interstate 10 corridor the aerospace capital of the world. And things are heading in that direction, with Northrop Grumman expanding its facility that manufacturers subassembly parts for the military’s Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle and the recent announcement the company will build KC-45 Tankers for the United States Air Force. Northrop Grumman’s package was selected ahead of Seattle-based Boeing Company’s.

Jones and his group have formed an alliance with officials in West Alabama to prepare a mega-site in hopes of attracting an automotive manufacturer. Their efforts are similar to the Pontotoc-Union-Lee Alliance in Northeast Mississippi that ultimately landed a Toyota plant.

The 1,200-acre Kewanee Industrial Site, with help from an Economic Development Initiative grant administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has been engineered and is in the beginning stages of an environmental and geological impact study. The West-Alabama-East-Mississippi Alliance (WAEM) is a participant in the WIRED initiative, a program administered the U.S. Department of Labor that funnels grant money to mostly rural areas making an attempt to develop their workforces to attract industries in the healthcare, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology fields. The WAEM alliance is the only one of 13 participants to have two states partnered together.

“Cooperation is key to regionalism,” Jones said, noting that institutions of higher learning — including Mississippi State University and the University of Alabama — and community colleges in both states have joined the team. The property for the Kewanee site is under option, with all 30 of the separate landowners agreeing to sell their tracts for $10,000 an acre. “It wasn’t easy to get that many people to agree to one price,” Jones said.

Hughes, in a nod to his days as a key reserve on Mississippi State’s 1996 Final Four basketball team, touted regionalism for its potential to combine the resources of two entities in forming one team.

“In a global economy it makes sense any way you look at it.”

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

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