Looking to the future

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Published: February 9,2009

The top tier of economic development projects in Mississippi the past decade or so shares a similarity: most of them are advanced manufacturing businesses.

The arrival of Nissan touched off a series of suppliers in Central Mississippi, as did Severstal in East Mississippi. Officials hope the Toyota plant in Blue Springs will produce the same ripple effect in Northeast Mississippi, region that received recently hard-to-find good news last week with the announcement that Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) will expand its plant and more than quadruple its workforce over the next eight years.

“Mississippi is becoming more involved in advanced manufacturing for aerospace, automotive and similar high-end manufacturing and high-tech manufacturing, particularly in the area of composites,” Barbour said. “(ATK) is a big deal not only because of the national economy, it is also a big deal because it’s a perfect fit into the strategies a lot of places in Mississippi are trying to employ to create more and better-paying jobs for our citizens.”

Another similarity the big projects share is that, for the most part, they have settled in areas of the state that are north and east of Jackson.

Largely left out of the economic euphoria are Southwest Mississippi and the Delta.

Economic developers from each of those areas agree that advanced manufacturing deals are hard to make without two ingredients: a skilled workforce and a site big enough and with the necessary infrastructure to accommodate a business.

“It’s really not a cookie-cutter approach (to recruiting advanced manufacturing prospects), but if there’s anything that is a common thread with high-end and high-tech (manufacturing), it is high-skilled labor,” said Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. “Having a trained workforce is critical. The more marquee type projects have gone into areas where the skilled workers are. Columbus has certainly benefited from having a work force that has a lot of aerospace mechanics and maintenance people. I think that’s probably the main thing that got (plants such as Aurora Flight Sciences and Eurocopter) there is you’ve got an Air Force base that’s got the same skill set already.”

The aerospace industry, Barbour says, is targeted as one to “greatly expand Mississippi’s presence in.” Aerospace manufacturing is something Herrin believes could do well in his region.

“We’re looking to do some infrastructure upgrades to make that more feasible,” he said. “We’re looking at alternative energy also.”

That sector, Herrin said, could thrive in Southwest Mississippi because of the area’s abundant natural resources that will eventually be used to produce alternative energy. “We’re a timber-driven economy to anything to do with that would have a ripple effect,” Herrin said.

Like a qualified workforce, site size and readiness are among the first things a business evaluates when considering sites. The “mega sites” like Wellspring that landed Toyota are rare, so targeting prospects with smaller site needs is essential, Herrin said.

“The big projects have a need for big sites. That’s been a challenge in our area because we’ve got sites but we don’t really have the super site,” he said. “We’re looking more for somebody who needs a 1,500-acre site with rail access. These are the things we’ve got that we can market ourselves with.”

Partnerships with community colleges that provide workforce training are a good way to create a workforce with the necessary skills to work at an advanced manufacturing operation.

In Cleveland, Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead and Coahoma Community College and Clarksdale have provided the bulk of the workforce training. It also helps to have Delta State.

“We think (that gives us) an upper hand,” said Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce executive director Judson Thigpen, who named Baxter Pharmaceuticals as an advanced manufacturing success story in the Delta.

Bringing in another high-end project is a high priority, but like Southwest Mississippi, site size and the national economy is going to be an issue.

“We can’t take a huge one, but we’re very eager to recruit some of the higher-end stuff,” Thigpen said. “And of course, right now there’s not many people looking to expand or relocate or start up a new business.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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