Communities across Mississippi have large businesses that act as economic anchors. The communities and their residents depend on these companies to provide employment and stability. It can be devastating if these big employers downsize or fold up shop and move away.
In the Lee County area, people are still looking for work in the furniture manufacturing sector as a result of the closing of the Berkline plant there. Lee County is down approximately 1,000 jobs with another 3,000 in the area, according to David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.
“A lot of those who were laid off are using this time to upgrade their technical skills,” he says. “The demand for skilled labor is up and that’s the key to employment. We’re working with the Governor’s Office and the community to help people improve their skills.”
He says this time for workers’ personal improvement is the silver lining of the push back of operations for the Toyota plant.
“As simple as it sounds, we also tell people to find something to do in the interim and keep up good work habits; don’t just sit home and wait six months,” he added. “Your record where you’re working now is a predictor of your reputation as a worker and that will follow you to a new employer.”
The facility left behind by Berkline, vacant for a year, is not easy to market to high-technology companies because of its low ceilings. “It was ideal for furniture manufacturing but is not as appealing to different kinds of companies that want higher ceilings,” Rumbarger says. “But, we are always looking for new companies to bring into the community; a lot of those will be suppliers for Toyota.”
The right mix
Baxter Company, a worldwide manufacturer of medical solutions, was recruited by the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce and located there in 1950.
“They are truly an economic anchor here,” says Judson Thigpen, the chamber’s executive director. “Years ago, they had twice the employees they have now. Their workforce is now about 800, but they are still our largest employer. They are in the middle of a $75-million expansion and bringing in new equipment.”
Although it hurts when companies close, Thigpen says it is not devastating in his area because of the diversity. Delta State University, with approximately 600 employees, is another economic mainstay along with Faurecia, a manufacturer of metal seat frames for automobiles, and its 400 employees. A few years ago, Durafast sold out, and then Tyson Foods downsized and closed. Both closures left a void in the employment sector that Faurecia has mostly filled.
“We have a good mix of manufacturing, the service sector and a huge agricultural community,” he says. “We have a lot of things that keep us going. We probably do better with a company that comes in with 100 to 150 jobs and grows from that. Companies needing 400 to 500 employees put a strain on our workforce. Faurecia needs a more skilled workforce, and it’s taking time to train them.”
Diversifying that portfolio
rel and Jones County are fortunate to have many locally owned companies that provide major economic vitality.
“We’re blessed. I could talk forever about them,” says Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County. “These are companies that started here and kept growing. They also provide community development and leadership.”
Those economic engines include Howard Industries, Masonite, Sanderson Farms and Laurel Machine & Foundry which was begun 100 years ago. The oil and gas industry is also big in Jones County and going great guns at this time. Once employing 4,000 to 5,000 people, Masonite now employs between 600 and 700 people in Jones County.
“We had some apparel plants close in the 1990s but our diversity helped fill the void,” Stennett says. “When a plant closes and leaves an empty building, that’s an asset the community can market. We try to see it as a positive thing because 75% of prospects looking to re-locate want a building.”
When plants close…
Oreck, a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, had 600 employees at its Long Beach plant when it closed in 2006. The facility had been there 10 years.
“They had contributed a lot and it definitely left a void,” says Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. “Their leaving was a business decision, and that’s just the evolution of business.”
He showed the vacated building to prospects several times before an investor came in and purchased it. “They’ve got the motivation to get it filled,” he says. “We’re working to get the jobs back.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.