Biggest news in North Mississippi? No surprise there: TOYOTA

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Published: December 24,2007

The year 2007 will long be remembered as one defining Northeast Mississippi for many years to come with the successful attraction of a new Toyota manufacturing plant that will have the capacity to build 150,000 Toyota Highland sport utility vehicles (SUVs) per year after it begins operation in 2010.

The announcement in February that Toyota’s eighth plant in the U.S. will be located near Tupelo has provided a major boost to the area’s economic prospects. Toyota is expected to invest approximately $1.3 billion in the project that will create 2,000 jobs.

“This project was the most sought after economic development project of the decade,” said David P. Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation of Tupelo/Lee County. “It was won by unparalleled team work from Gov. Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Development Authority, TVA, the Three Rivers Planning and Development District, the three counties of Pontotoc, Union and Lee and the award-winning Community Development Foundation (CDF) of Tupelo/Lee County.”

The Toyota project is expected to bring numerous related spinoff developments while providing a spur to local residential and retail development. Some suppliers for Toyota have already announced they will locate in the area. Rumbarger said Lee County is seeing the largest new capital investment in its history with the announcement of the $200-million Toyota Auto Body (doing business as Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi) factory that will employ 400 people. The CDF expects that in 2008 more auto suppliers will announce locating in the area.

Other new industry recruited in 2007 includes the area N.E.W. (Direct TV call center) with its 400 jobs. Rumbarger said the company selected Tupelo after a national search. The area is also celebrating existing industry expansions including Bryce Corporation, Omega Motion, Advanced Innovations and Martinrea-Fabco supplying Nissan and other automotive manufacturers.

The new industrial growth is already providing an impetus for people in the workforce to upgrade their skills. Rumbarger said many job seekers are going back for upgrades and further training to improve their skills to be more marketable.

The new investments and jobs created are also encouraging major expansions of residential and retail developments.

“The Mall at Barnes Crossing is undergoing a $13-million expansion with a new Barnes & Noble and Dick’s Sporting Goods reemphasizing the retail center of the market for Tupelo in Northeast Mississippi,” Rumbarger said. “We have also seen the opening of the Kings Crossing shopping center including Kohl’s department store and the opening of the Hilton Inn and Convention Center, in addition to other new restaurants and businesses, in our Fair Park District downtown.”

The furniture manufacturing industry in Northeast Mississippi has continued to be challenged by layoffs and closings. But Rumbarger said layoffs in the furniture industry were more prevalent in the last quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007 with most of the dominant players in the furniture industry having a leveling off of growth over the past year with a steady employment base.

Toyota is also causing excitement in the Oxford area.

“We have been in a getting ready mode for this Toyota plant about 45 miles away,” said Max D. Hipp, president/CEO executive director, Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation. “We realize we are going to be in a very good position here to attract development associated with the plant. We hope to get some manufacturing out of that. Over the years, suppliers will be fanning out over the entire region. We do feel that a lot of the people who work at the plant will live here. Some will be Japanese.”

A Center for Manufacturing Excellence will be created at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) to assist Toyota. And there will also be an Ole Miss Division of Outreach and Continuing Education Japanese Saturday school created to keep children of Japanese workers up to speed training in Japanese studies.

“They will come in weekends and spend four to six hours training in certain subjects to keep up with what is happening in Japan,” Hipp said. “They will also have instruction here in our public schools. When they go back, they will be able to fit in rather easily into the Japanese system. They have a pretty rigorous curriculum back home, so they need to keep up with that. In Japan, it is very, very important to get a good education as it sets the tone for what university students will go to.”

Hipp said it is difficult to conceive what the next five years will bring as a result of the new Toyota plant.

“It might be completely different than what anyone envisions,” Hipp said. “The impact hasn’t really hit the region yet. Many suppliers are looking, but few have chosen sites. To that end, our board of supervisors has authorized spending some money in the county industrial park to spruce it up and make it more attractive in appearance.”

Oxford saw a large amount of new residential construction in 2005 and 2006. As part of a national trend, home construction slowed down in 2007.

“We had an awful lot of construction very quickly, and while 2007 has been softer, it is still growing strong,” Hipp said. “We also have about a five-mile extension of four-laning Highway 7. That will help a lot of the traffic flow in the southern part of the county.”

Other notable achievements in 2007 include Oxford being favorably featured in an article in the October 23 edition of the New York Times dedicated to retirement communities. And the medical community has grown to include approximately 100 physicians. Hipp said that is approximately a 300% increase in physician capacity over the past 15 years.

Corinth has seen continuing growth in 2007, said Clayton Stanley, CEO of the Alliance.

“Alcorn County is fortunate to have a diverse economic base consisting of a good mix of stable manufacturing, diverse retail and food service and a regional medical facility serving the surrounding area with complete medical services including open heart procedures,” Stanley said. “Due to this diversity, we have seen our economy continue to grow and prosper as indicated by declining unemployment, increasing sales tax revenue and continued investment and expansion by our industry partners as well as our local medical facility.”

Highlight of the year include Magnolia Regional Health Center completing a $42-million addition to the medical facility with the renovation of the emergency room, addition of a new hospital tower and opening of the Magnolia Heart and Vascular Center wing, which added approximately 100 new jobs and allows the medical center to offer open heart procedures and overall improved healthcare closer to home.

“Three of our large multi-national industries all began or announced significant expansions or upgrades to their local facilities, showing their commitment to Alcorn County and our stable and skilled workforce,” Stanley said. “Northeast Mississippi Community College opened the doors on the Northeast at Corinth facility, offering college courses, as well skills training to our citizens without the burden of traveling out of the county. Also in 2007, Kingsford Charcoal opened its manufacturing plant in Alcorn County resulting in significant capital investment and hiring in Alcorn County. All in all, Alcorn County has had a very good year in 2007.”

Corinth apparently has escaped the slowdown in the housing market being seen in many parts of the country. Sales are even compared to a year ago, and the average sale price has increased from $100,200 in 2006 to 116,000 in 2007.

A new 300,000-square-foot Kimberly Clark distribution center will open in early 2008. And final approval was given to construct the Alcorn County Surface Water Program to deliver water from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to the Corinth water system.

“This greatly improves the infrastructural capacity and enhances our ability to continue to recruit additional industry,” Stanley said. “We also look forward to continued site visits from potential new industrial and retail partners. The year 2007 was a good one for Alcorn County, and we fully anticipate 2008 to be as good, if not better.”

At the northeastern most part of the state, Tishomingo County experienced the loss of one furniture plant and layoffs at another. But there was growth at other industries. It was a year of job growth for Tishomingo County, said Ken Cooley, chairman of the Tishomingo County Development Authority in 2007.

“Highlights include new companies such as Roll Form Group, Max Home and ERSHIGS,” Cooley said. “Expansions occurred at Waterway Inc./Tiffin Motorhomes, FerrouSouth, New River Homes, Pickwick Pines Resort & Marina, Dynasteel and others. We are working on a significant number of new and expanded projects that will bear fruit in years to come. Our progress is due to partnerships, teamwork, persistence, and patience.”

Bob Carter, chairman of the foundation for 2008, said the group expects to benefit from both Toyota and Alabama National Rail Car in coming years.

“But we must prepare our workers for the new kinds of manufacturing jobs,” Carter said. “The old types of manufacturing jobs are leaving and the new types of jobs require more training and education. We ask that every citizen of Tishomingo County get involved. Join us as we prepare for the new global economy.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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