Three decades ago Tishomingo County endured the heartbreak of losing a pair of multi-billion-dollar federal economic development projects – a TVA nuclear plant and a NASA rocket assembly facility.
But, as fortune would have it, the federal government by the mid-1980s had set the stage for a new era of economic growth for the Northeast Mississippi county and its border neighbors in Tennessee and Alabama. Work had at last been completed on a long-planned $ 2 billion waterway project linking the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers, and providing inland ports along the waterway access to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile as well as the Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio rivers.
Disappointment lingered after the TVA dropped plans for its Yellow Creek Nuclear Plant and NASA backed off making a new generation of solid rocket motors using infrastructure left behind by cancellation of the nuclear plant. But with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway open for business, the county’s government and business leaders had a strong hand to play.
Fast forward 29 years to today. The county is putting its money on a future dominated by steel and metals, specifically the fabricating process. Officials of the Mississippi Development Authority and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway are on board as well with financial and infrastructure help.
As a result, the Yellow Creek Inland Port Authority’s Yellow Creek Industrial Park in the Tishomingo County town of Iuka has filled up with industrial steel fabrication companies such as Roll Form, Contract Fabricators, Dennen Steel, Syline Steel and FerrouSouth.
Attention is now on repeating that success about 10 miles to the south in Tishomingo County’s Northeast Mississippi Waterway Industrial Park in Burnsville. This time around the emphasis will be on metal-related processing, including alloys such as silicon.
Marking a milestone of sorts for the new effort, county and state business and government leaders gathered at the Burnsville park Monday to break ground on a $200 million Mississippi Silicon Metals plant expected to create 200 jobs when in full operation. The plant will be the first silicon metals manufacturing operation to open in the United States since 1976, according to company CEO David Tuten, a project he said is made possible by new efficient manufacturing processes and new government trade protections.
The Tenn-Tom Waterway gives the silicon metal maker a way to get a key component of the process — coal from Eastern Kentucky — to its Burnsville plant as well as a way to ship the finished product to markets in the U.S. heartland and to seaports via Mobile.
“Access to the Tenn-Tom gives us access to the Gulf. That really makes it great,” Tuten said of the waterfront industrial park.
Ricardo Vicintin, president and CEO of Brazilian parent company Rima Industrial, said the Burnsville site won out over “many locations around the world” considered for the plant.
Being new to Mississippi, the silicon metals industry and the Burnsville plant create “possibilities for additional companies to locate in the state to directly support Mississippi Silicon’s operations,” said Tammy Craft, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Development Authority.
Tuten said it’s unlikely that the plant that will be built over the next 18 months will be the last of Mississippi Silicon’s projects in Burnsville. “We have other plans on the books for things to do. Great things are on the horizon.”
“Volume is the key word” for what the Tenn-Tom offers Mississippi Silicon, said Eugene Bishop, executive director of the Yellow Creek Inland Port Authority, which handled more than 500,000 tons of cargo last year.
“We built the barge terminal,” Bishop said. “It’s right next to the existing Tenn-Tom Waterway barge terminal. They have access to all of the water transportation they need.”
The Inland Port Authority is putting in the infrastructure for the Burnsville park. Once completed, it will have several large sites to offer south of Lee Highway (U.S. 72), Bishop said.
The four-lane highway and the extension of rail service into the Northeast Mississippi Waterway Industrial Park provide critical intermodal components, he said.
“We want to make the park attractive to users, not just shipping-dependent ones.”
The new 900-acre Waterway Industrial Park, he said, “is to be a metal-focused park. It’s a new location for a new process of products that could later spin off into a lot of other tenants.”
Gary Matthews, executive director of the Tishomingo County Economic Development Foundation, said companies such as Mississippi Silicon Metals have been a primary recruitment target from the inception of the park which has about 600 acres remaining for development. “Silicon is used in so many industrial processes from automotive to aerospace,” Matthews said, and noted two of its key manufacturing components come from the region — hardwood pellets from Northeast Mississippi and quartz gravel from North Central Alabama.
At the end of the last decade, Site Selection magazine called the Tenn-Tom an emerging economic lifeline for the South “as companies that make their living off the region’s natural resources invest at a record pace along this man-made marvel.”
Of course, people still talk about the sudden loss of the prosperous future the TVA nuclear plant and the NASA rocket motor plant offered back in the 1980s, Matthews said.
But he added those disappointments recede as optimism rises over what a waterway that connects 18 states and 14 rivers can bring.
“We’ve been able to create 1,600 jobs over the last two years,” he said, suggesting there will be many more to come.