Polymer cluster part of developing I-59 tech corridor

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: November 26,2001

HATTIESBURG — More than half of all polymers made in the U.S. are produced along the Gulf Coast in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and along the southern part of I-59, making it fertile ground to add a polymer cluster to the burgeoning I-59 technology corridor.

“The Economic Development Authority of Jones County and the Hattiesburg Area Development Partnership (HADP) representing Forrest and Lamar counties have taken the lead in putting together a consortium to represent technology along I-59,” said Gray Swoope, HADP president.

“We’ll have more to announce after the first of the year when we have a marketing plan in place.”

Mitch Stennett, president of the Jones County EDA, said a study was recently completed by a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, hired by HADP and funded in part by the HADP and Jones County EDA with matching state funds, that identified growth patterns of existing technology firms located along I-59, which runs northeast from New Orleans, La., through Meridian. The study also pointed out potential new industries related to technological processes and products. The polymer cluster is only a part of that, he said.

“We are progressing rapidly and developing partnerships and are well into developing a marketing plan with associated materials,” Stennett said.

Some of the companies located along the I-59 technology corridor include Boeing and Lockheed Martin at Stennis Space Center, Heritage Plastics, Valspar Corp. and Wellman in the Hancock County/Picayune area; Dickten & Masch Inc., Excel Injection Molding, Kohler, Owens-Illinois, Sunbeam and Western Container in Hattiesburg; Delphi-Packard and Howard Industries in Laurel; and Peavey Electronics in Meridian.

“We’re developing industry in value- added polymer products, which have higher margins compared to commodities and the raw materials, and (the raw materials) are available with easy shipping from the coast,” said Robert Lochhead, Ph.D., dean of the science and technology department at the University of Southern Mississippi. “General Electric’s styrene plant in Jackson County is one of the leaders in that now. The Hattiesburg area has several plants producing value-added products and we’re doing a study now to identify where the natural clusters are. Obviously, places like the Nissan plant being built will be major customers for these products.”

There’s no shortage of skilled labor in the polymer industry in South Mississippi. Educational opportunities exist from the high school to the doctorate level in Forrest, Lamar and Pearl River counties.

“Everyone touts location, location, location, but for industry, it’s labor, labor, labor,” said Larry Mobley, field engineer for the Mississippi Polymer Institute. “You can offer all the incentives in the world, but without a skilled workforce, companies won’t come. We have just the opposite situation. About 90% of our graduates have left the state to seek work and it would be nice to keep some of them in Mississippi.”

Earlier this year, USM was awarded a five-year, $375,000 National Science Foundation grant to design a three-week polymer science course module for chemistry classes at Petal High School. The Petal school system is home to the state’s only high school polymer technology program.

“Half of all chemists work in the polymer industry,” said Allen Guymon, Ph.D., assistant professor of polymer science at USM. “With this program, our chemistry students and our polymer technology students will be able to work together to see a connection between science and technology. The program could become a feeder for the program here at the university…and open the door for further NSF funding.”

Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College have polymer programs. U.S. News and World Report recently recognized USM’s School for Polymers and High Performance Materials as one of the nation’s top 10 polymer science programs.

Earlier this month, BASF, a global company with annual sales exceeding $33 billion, announced it had chosen USM’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials as a “select school.” Lochhead said the designation means BASF will recruit the polymer program’s graduates and will collaborate with the program on research.

“BASF is the second-largest chemical company in the world, and they only choose a handful of schools as `select schools,`” said Lochhead. “The collaboration will involve joint research, joint publication and student internships in the U.S. and Germany.”

The latest developments are the result of ongoing efforts to expand polymer technology in Southeast Mississippi since 1993, said Lochhead.

“We were beginning to be well known, but we were graduating students who had to leave the area to find work,” he said. “The faculty and I decided to help develop the polymer industry around here, and with the Mississippi Legislature’s help, we formed the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI) in 1993.”

Since then, MPI leaders and economic developers have attracted 41 new polymer-related companies to the area, representing 2,500 new jobs, 7,500 ancillary jobs and $2 billion in capital investment from out of state.

“I came to USM from Ohio — polymer country — but I’ve never worked with so many enthusiastic people in my life as I have here in Mississippi,” Lochhead said.

The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) recently announced an upcoming comprehensive micro economic analysis, labor needs and skills assessment for the polymers cluster, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and led by a research team at USM.

The study was prompted after results of last year’s communications and information technology (CIT) study by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter confirmed that the polymer industry was a potential natural cluster in southeast Mississippi.

Results of the MDA study, which will include the identification of specific labor requirements through 2006, will be published next March.

“We want to get the word out about this study and the surveys and interviews we’ll be conducting with businesses around the state,” said David Kolzow, Ph.D., chairman of the economic development department at USM. “We want to get as much cooperation as possible to get the best information to meet the needs of Mississippi industries.”

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


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