Since taking over as Lawrence County’s economic development officer in March 2013, Jared Evans has been writing letters — thousands of them — trying to lure new business and industry to the South Mississippi county.
“It’s an old-school approach, but it’s the only way I know to do it,” Evans said.
Over the last 15 months, Evans has gotten plenty of rejections, which he expected. But, he also expected the rural county to eventually “land a gold nugget,” and he has not been disappointed.
Last month, Bonaventure Company Inc., a Louisiana-based fire truck and equipment industry supplier, announced it was expanding into Mississippi with a new service/repair and refurbishment center to be located in a pre-existing building in Monticello.
“To better serve our loyal and future customers in Mississippi, Bonaventure is opening a new facility in Monticello. We are excited about our move into Mississippi,” said Nolan LeBlanc, president of Bonaventure, which has been in operation for 20-plus years.
Initially, the new operation in Monticello will employ five workers, but that number could double depending on future sales, and the quality of the jobs Bonaventure is offering is important, Evans said.
“The jobs will be well-paying, technical jobs and their sales, service and training aspects will not only be an asset to our community, but it will also promote our town and county on all that they do within our state. People will come here who have barely heard of our town, much less have been here, as a result,” Evans said.
For Lawrence County, that is the issue — to get prospects to at least look at it as a potential site for future business. Making even the long list of prospects has proven a significant challenge.
“I’m 33 years old, and grew up here,” Evans said. “There hasn’t been any new companies like Bonaventure coming into this area in more than a decade. We hope this puts us on the map.”
Lawrence County’s issues are ones commonly seen in rural areas. It lacks the infrastructure and assets to compete with larger communities. The county seat and only town of any size, Monticello, has a population of merely 1,500 or so residents, leaving the county little to offer large companies in terms of potential employees.
It isn’t that Lawrence County leaders haven’t tried to create new jobs, at least on a grassroots level. In fact, Evans is the grandson of Frank C. Allen, a local banker who served along with other local leaders as the area’s quasi-economic development organization. Early efforts resulted in the landing of Georgia-Pacific, which today is Lawrence County’s largest employer.
However, over time the county lost many of its businesses, draining its leadership. With the exception of Atlas Manufacturing Company Inc., a maker of material handling equipment that is based in Monticello, Lawrence County’s economy today is almost entirely dependent of wood-related businesses such as Georgia-Pacific.
The lack of local employment opportunities has led many higher-skilled workers away from the county.
“There is a perception that we don’t have trained workers here, but I don’t know if that is true,” said Evans, the son of State Rep. Bob Evans (District 91). “We have a lot of folks who work offshore or at places such as the Nissan plant in Canton.” He added that he hopes Bonaventure’s arrival with its above-average jobs will boost the county’s profile among prospective businesses in terms of available skilled workers.
While he is using “snail mail” to pitch prospects, Evans knows the county has to bring a modern effort to job creation. Evans called the county’s old website “horrible,” and the Mississippi State University Extension Service is currently developing a new site that should be up and running in a month or so. He is also looking to retool the county’s promotional materials.
While it hasn’t always been easy to swallow all of the rejections, Evans remains upbeat. He pointed out that Bonaventure was looking at putting its new facility on the Coast until Lawrence County came knocking. So, he can laugh at the defeats.
“I wrote a letter to (a company on the East Coast), and not long after that my phone rang,” Evans remembered. “I saw the company on my caller ID, so I got my pen ready to write. But, they were only calling to ask that they be removed from my mailing list.”
Interestingly, one of the “nos” he received gave him encouragement — even vindication for all of his efforts. Not long ago, Evans wrote three gun manufacturers in the hopes of getting them to consider Lawrence County. Only one responded.
“They didn’t just reject Lawrence County, they rejected the whole state, saying they had decided against coming to Mississippi,” Evans said. “So, I called them up to see why. When I asked them what other economic development organizations in Mississippi had contacted them, they said we were the only one.
“So, we will continue to work at it. I feel like if we can just get people here, see the area and its people, we will be successful.”