Officials: No comment on Nissan deal

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: October 30,2000

After months of speculation, Alabama officials reported last week that Mississippi had won the coveted $1-billion Nissan project after weeks of heavy bidding between the two states on incentives for the plant that will likely be built on a 1,000-acre site in Canton and create as many as 4,000 jobs.

“It was Mississippi’s time,” said Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus Lowndes County Economic Development Association (CLEDA). “Assuming it all comes down, which I think it will, it was logical for Mississippi to get a big-ticket project like this. It was a culmination of a lot of work over several years. The ripple effect will be felt all over the state and region. The fact that a prominent company would pick Mississippi will open doors for us around the world.”

Even though official word has yet to come from Nissan officials, Alabama economic developers have publicly admitted defeat on the automotive plant project, which would have landed in Opelika.

“We really put our best foot forward,” David Bronner, CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama, told the Birmingham News. “Mississippi just wanted it even more. Obviously, we would have preferred the company choose us, but the fact that they picked the Southeast is important.”

Because Nissan has not yet given the official nod, Mississippi officials have been reluctant to comment. Robert Lesley, spokesperson for Entergy Mississippi, said it was premature to remark on the project. So did Dianne Dyar, executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

“As of Oct. 25, all I can say is that I’m working on confidential projects and I’m not able to make a comment,” said Jerry Acy, executive director of the Madison County Economic Development Authority, when contacted about the Nissan project.

At press time, calls to the Governor’s Office and the Mississippi Economic Council had not been returned.

“It is our policy not to discuss projects,” said Mississippi Development Authority executive director J.C. Burns.

For several years, Mississippi has been in Alabama’s shadow, watching as the $440-million Honda plant went to Lincoln and as Mercedes-Benz poured $600 million into an expansion project in Vance. But the $1-billion project surpasses the two Alabama projects, and the Nissan plant would start off with as many employees as Mercedes will have when the second phase is complete, said Ford.

“Mississippi has finished in the top three on several automotive projects in recent years, and we have learned a great deal from previous losses,” said Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi. “Because automotive plants generally do not like to locate within several hundred miles of each other, yet like to cluster in a reasonable proximity for supplier purposes, Central Mississippi was a logical and viable choice for this project. The existence of strong community colleges and university technology and engineering support had to be a plus, and the new Mississippi political and economic development leadership has obviously done a great job of developing the project.”

Even though Alabama officials declined to disclose the incentives package offerings to Nissan, Mississippi upped the ante after the passage of the Advantage Mississippi Initiative in the legislative special session on Aug. 31, making it possible for Nissan to qualify for a rebate of up to 4% of its gross payroll, and creating tax abatements and other incentives to make the state more competitive with Alabama’s economic development packages.

“Some of the new incentives recently passed by the Legislature are geared toward large projects with high-paying jobs, and that fact alone probably kept us in the running for this project when the field was cut a few months ago,” Ingram said. “And certainly, Madison County’s economic development and elected officials have gone the extra mile to make this project happen. If this project follows recent automotive location trends, additional customized incentives will probably still need to be granted before any location decision is final. Should Nissan become a reality in Mississippi, it will have a positive effect in all areas of the state.”

Former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (now MDA), Jimmy Heidel said, “It’s wonderful for Mississippi. It shows that what we’re trying to do with incentives and workforce training is working.”

Even though it is not clear what Nissan intends to build at the new plant, automotive trade publications have reported that the company may produce a new V-8 engine and introduce a full-size pickup truck, a full-size sport utility vehicle and a minivan, all built on the same platform.

“Nissan’s decision to locate in Mississippi is great news for Greenwood,” said Cliff Brumfield, executive director of the Greenwood Leflore Industrial Board and the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation. “We already enjoy a cluster of second- and third-tier automotive component suppliers in Northwest Mississippi. These existing companies are supplying to assembly plants several states away. Having the Nissan facility just down the interstate is a tremendous advantage not only for our existing companies but for new locations of similar industries.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.


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