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Oxford readies effort to replace departing Caterpillar

By JACK WEATHERLY

Oxford already has its net out to snag a tenant when Caterpillar Inc. flies away.

“Project Butterfly,” a play on the departing manufacturer’s name, is what the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, calls its effort.

“It’s a mission to (fill) the Caterpillar facility as rapidly as possible,” Jon Maynard, president and chief executive of the foundation, said in an interview.

But the effort can’t be fully realized till after the last of the 240 employees leave the heavy-equipment manufacturer’s 180,000-square-foot building by the third quarter of 2017.

Caterpillar announced April 28 that would close and eliminate all jobs in Oxford due to a global slowdown in sales.

It is about halfway through its restructuring plan announced in September in which it will eliminate about 10,000 of 114,000 jobs globally over a three-year period.

Oxford workers will be offered a severance package, the company said, although transfers to other Caterpillar facilities are not so certain.

At the end of 2015, there were about 1,300 Caterpillar employees in the state, most of whom were in the Corinth and Booneville operations, which will untouched by the restructuring plan, though still vulnerable to the national and international economies.

Project Butterfly aims to “create more jobs than Caterpillar is leaving behind.”

“When Emerson (Electric) closed in 2002, they eliminated 500 jobs. Winchester moved in about 2004 or 2005. They now employ 1,400 here in Oxford.”

Most of those jobs came when the Olin Corp. decided in November 2010 to move 1,000 jobs and its Alton, Ill., Winchester Centerfire Operations plant, which makes ammunition, to Oxford.

Incentives from the Mississippi Development Authority included a $25 million grant toward building a 500,000-square-foot plant and infrastructure, a $2.5 million loan for infrastructure and a $6 million loan to the county for site preparation.

“We are already being courted by companies wanting to harvest our work force,” Maynard said.

The Oxford-Lafayette foundation will also be working the Tennessee Valley Authority and the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association. The foundation will conduct a work-force analysis to make sure it recruits an employer with the right fit, Maynard said.

Caterpillar wages average between $15 and $17 an hour, Maynard said.

Oxford’s population is between 20,000 and 25,000 and Lafayette County’s is approximately 50,000, he said.

One of the community’s recruiting cards is the fact that Policom Corp. ranks it No. 17 among 536 micropolitan areas in the nation in terms of economic strength.

Lafayette County’s unemployment rate in March was 4.5 percent, compared with the state’s 5.6 percent and the U.S. rate at 5.1 percent.

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