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Banner week for business developments in late October

Good news for a change. At a time when troubling news about the economy is dominating the headlines, Mississippi had a slew of successes in the business world in late October.

“We recently had a banner week for Mississippi,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). “This would have been a great week any time, but even more so during these challenging economic times.”

ACT in Corinth was purchased by Ayrshire Electronics, saving 200 jobs. Steel Development Company broke ground in Amory on a $175-million investment, which will ultimately create more than 100 good-paying jobs. GE Aviation dedicated its new $90-million facility in Batesville. It has already hired 30 people and plans to add another 100 over the next year. And, MARS Foods/Uncle Ben’s Rice celebrated its 30-year anniversary with an expansion and the announcement of 30 more new jobs.

“MDA takes a comprehensive view to economic development,” Swoope said. “It is just as important today to work with our existing businesses, as well as recruiting new ones. I am proud of how our team has responded to both creating jobs and retaining jobs.”

Swoope said Mississippi is continuing to see positive economic development come through the pipeline in part because of the changes that were made by the Momentum Mississippi effort several years ago. Those changes give MDA the tools to recruit new business and retain existing businesses.

“Last week was a testament to the effectiveness of the Momentum Mississippi legislation introduced by Gov. Barbour and passed by our Legislature in 2005,” said Swoope. “Programs from this piece of legislation have been used to save jobs, create new jobs and encourage new investment in the state.”

Barbour credited the combined work of MDA and local economic development and elected officials with retaining the 200 high-skilled electronic jobs in Corinth.

“I want to congratulate and compliment the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors and local economic developers who went to work very quickly when the ACT closure was announced to find a way to salvage these jobs that are so vital to Northeast Mississippi,” Barbour said. “Our team at the MDA and I have been working hard over the past few days to help facilitate this acquisition by Mississippi’s newest corporate citizen, Ayrshire Electronics, and I look forward to a long, productive relationship.”

ACT Electronics in Corinth has handled subassemblies for electronic devices such as telephone piece parts, telephone ring generators and other products. Ayrshire Electronics is a privately held electronics’ manufacturing firm based in Louisville, Ky.

Another positive development in Northeast Mississippi is the recent groundbreaking for $175-million Steel Development Company, which will represent the largest economic development in the history of Amory.

“Everyone clearly understands the economic environment that exists in this country right now,” said Amory Mayor Howard Boozer. “In light of that, this is an upside impact that is going to benefit not only Amory, but the surrounding regions in a substantial favorable way providing good jobs — better jobs than some we have had in the past. It will certainly provide career opportunities to our people. It will add diversity to our job base, which we need critically. The tax base will be impacted very favorably. This is a substantial impact on our tax base going forward. It is going to benefit the people of this area for generations to come.”

Lou Colatriano, president of Steel Development’s Long Product’s Division, which includes the Amory plant, said the collaboration of city, county and state officials was a deciding factor for them.

“We intend to be a positive member of this community by using the latest technology and most efficient steel-making process to benefit not only our customers, but our community as well,” Colatriano said.

The plant is expected to employ 200 people when it opens in the spring of 2010 on an 80-acre site near the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Recycle scrap steel from an average of 500 to 800 automobiles daily will be made into steel rebar, which is used as reinforcement in concrete.

Mark Bula, vice president of sales and marketing for Steel Development, said the company believes the recent economic growth that the South and Mississippi in particular have experienced will continue.

“This strong business environment has created a very favorable marketplace for our basic product, rebar, which is used to strengthen concrete construction like the highways and bridges we drive on every day,” Bula said. “Economic growth often brings infrastructure demands and we will be positioned to help meet those construction needs.”

Another highlight in state business news was the grand opening of GE Aviation in Batesville October 23, which was attended by dignitaries such as Barbour and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). GE Aviation manufactures jet engines and integrated digital, electric power and mechanical systems for aircraft. The facility in Batesville will specialize in advanced composite engine components created with what has been described as “the most sophisticated manufacturing that GE does anywhere in the world.”

Sonny Simmons, CEO, Panola Partnership Inc., said the company originally intended to build a 100,000-square-foot building and put 100 people to work. But because of demand for the product, which is made from strong, lightweight carbon composite resin material, GE built a 330,000-square-foot facility, and plans to grow the workforce to 300 in the next three to four years.

“They anticipate this plant to continue to grow for a number of years,” Simmons said. “This is extremely high technology. They will start out producing a fan blade housing that will support the fan blade in jet engines that go into the Dreamliner, the largest jet manufactured. In addition to that, they have future plans to possibly make the entire shroud that goes around the engine out of these same materials, which are stronger than steel and much lighter, which saves fuel and allows them to add additional passengers.”

The company has hired its first round of employees, and is expected to start production soon.

“It couldn’t come at a better time, that is for sure,” Simmons said. “There are a lot of plants in close proximity that are closing. People displaced from those jobs will be seeking employment. This gives them the opportunity to apply for a job. If they meet the skill level needed, they may get a better pay scale than they were accustomed to.”

While new industries are very welcome, keeping people employed for decades is also significant. So the recent 30th anniversary of the Mars Food U.S. Uncle Ben’s plant in Greenville was noteworthy. Earlier this year Mars Food US announced a $10-million plant expansion in Greenville to double production of the Uncle Ben’s 90-second ready rice line. And the company just announced an investment in a new distribution center in Greenville that will employ 30 people.

“We’ve been making Uncle Ben’s rice in Greenville for 30 years,” said Mars Food U.S. president Vincent Howell. “Our outstanding associates and dedicated partners here in the Delta Region are important to our business, and we are excited to announce this additional investment in the Greenville community. Our continued growth is possible because of the strong support of the City of Greenville, Washington County, the Delta Economic Development Center, Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority.”

Ed Johnson, CEO of the Delta Economic Development Center of Washington County, said there was stiff competition for the new distribution facility.

“We had to compete ferociously in the past few months with Memphis and other communities,” Johnson said. “Uncle Ben’s needed the new distribution facility because their business is expanding so much globally.”

In addition to the direct benefits from the payroll at the distribution facility, Johnson said there will also be indirect benefits such as the addition of approximately 60 trucks per day from Uncle Ben’s customers such as Kroger and Wal-Mart getting loaded at the distribution center.

“The truckers will be staying at local hotels and eating at local restaurants,” Johnson said. “They will buy a lot of fuel. This makes our local businesses healthier so they can hire more people.”

Uncle Ben’s employs approximately 200 associates, contractors and suppliers. The Greenville facility processes more than 156,000 tons of Delta-grown rice each year.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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