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Eminent domain sure to be hot campaign topic

September 14th, 2010 25 comments

Mississippi Farm Bureau President David Waide has told a couple Mississippi media outlets the past few days that supporters of an eminent domain initiative are getting really close to gathering enough signatures to put the issue on the 2011 ballot.

With Waide telling a newspaper in Tupelo that enough signatures have been gleaned from three of the four required Congressional districts, it would be a surprise at this point if organizers did not meet the Oct. 6 deadline to submit their documents to the secretary of state’s office.

The notion that government can use eminent domain to benefit a private enterprise is one of the most contentious political issues Magnolia Marketplace has covered. It is a near certainty that it will be a major talking point for statewide candidates next year.

The most interesting dynamic will likely play out on the Republican side of the field. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who will run for governor in 2011, did not strongly commit one way or another on the issue during the 2009 session, when the Senate narrowly upheld Gov. Barbour’s veto of a bill that would have restricted the use of eminent domain to projects of public interest, like roads and utilities. It would have been really interesting if the sustain/override vote in the Senate would have required Bryant to break a tie. He’s probably glad it didn’t.

Barbour spent many hours and a lot of energy lobbying lawmakers after he vetoed the legislation, which originally passed both chambers easily. It didn’t garner a single nay in the Senate, clearing that body 52-0. The crux of Barbour’s argument was that things like Toyota and Nissan would not be here if the state were not allowed to use eminent domain during the development of each.

Waide told the Mississippi Business Journal earlier in the summer that he expected enough signatures to arrive some time in September, and that timeline looks like it will be met. Voters will most likely decide the issue next fall. This is one of those issues where candidates will have to go all in or all out. There is no comfortable middle ground. The landowners’ rights lobby and economic development groups both have deep pockets and big voting blocs. Alienating either is never a good campaign strategy, so candidates have a tough decision to make.

The Viking has had a good couple weeks (updated)

September 3rd, 2010 No comments

Opinions and observations to kick off the long weekend …

Randy Watkins, Viking Classic boss, fine Ole Miss man and one of Magnolia Marketplace’s favorite people, had a double-shot of good news recently.

First, the PGA Tour announced in late August that it was renewing The Viking Classic for an additional year, guaranteeing the tournament would be played at Annandale in Madison at least through 2011. We did a story earlier in the summer about the contract between the Tour and the Viking expiring after this year, and most everybody we talked to was optimistic that the relationship between the two would continue. So while it’s  not much of a surprise, it still has to be a relief for Watkins and other Viking organizers.

Then, earlier this week, Viking Range announced that Emeril Lagasse would do two cooking demonstrations at the tournament. The Viking has had some fairly famous celebrity chefs at past tournaments, but none with the name recognition and drawing power of Emeril. You can purchase tickets for the tournament and/or Emeril’s cooking demos at vikingclassic.com. If you plan to be in town the last weekend of September, you should do just that.

The Mississippi Department of Employment Security announced late yesterday afternoon that it had received its 10,000th application related to the Toyota plant in Blue Springs. The agency says 8,700 of those 10,000 are from Mississippians. The rest come from 36 states across the U.S. MDES is helping Toyota fill 1,350 of the 2,000 jobs at the facility, so some HR person has a pile of paper work on their desk, and it’s only getting bigger. Let’s hope they move faster — and exercise a little more common sense — than the NCAA did and does.

Enjoy your Labor Day, and be safe.

URGENT UPDATE: Remember what we said about the NCAA in the above paragraph? Disregard. Jeremiah Masoli can play football for Ole Miss this year. The NCAA is a fair-minded, sense-driven organization.

Want to work at Toyota? Get in line

September 1st, 2010 1 comment

Nine days ago, when Toyota and Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority released the protocol the car company would use to hire its production workers at Blue Springs, the initial response from job-seekers was quick and heavy.

That first day, more than 600 folks filled out applications. The pace has obviously quickened.

Through Monday, 8,736 applications have been made for the 1,350 jobs the Mississippi Department of Employment Security is helping Toyota fill. That’s according to the MDES.

The average number of applications made per day the first week is 1,248.

That’s serious interest, and goes to show that Northeast Mississippi sure could use the jobs.

Rumors swirling about biofuel location(s) (Updated)

August 25th, 2010 1 comment

We know for sure that the economic development project lawmakers will most likely approve $50 million in incentives for Friday will have multiple locations.

True to the form he has established in his six and a half years in the Governor’s Mansion, Gov. Haley Barbour is not telling anybody for sure where those locations will be until he’s absolutely ready to do so.

Some checking with folks this morning has yielded two possibilities: D’Iberville and Greenville. One person Magnolia Marketplace spoke to a few minutes ago seems to think D’Iberville is not one of the locations, even though that city is included in the special session call in a separate item from the biofuel project. City leaders in D’Iberville are asking the Legislator for permission to acquire property for commercial development, but no details are given about what manner of development that is.

The fact that it’s separate from the item dealing with the biofuel project, said our source, is significant. “If D’Iberville were one of the places that’s going to get this thing, it would have been included in the nebolous general call,” they said, referring to the location detail-free description of the incentive package lawmakers will consider.

Conversations with folks about Greenville as a possibility reinforce that notion, considering Greenville has more land to offer as one of the locations and sits adjacent to the Mississippi River. Whether the proximity to the River is enough to overcome D’Iberville’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico is anybody’s guess.

Or maybe Greenville and D’Iberville will both be shut out of the biofuel sweepstakes. We’ll just have to wait and see.

UPDATED: Apparently heeding our cry (but probably not), Barbour just announced via press release that he will discuss the project with the media Thursday at 2 p.m. We’ll know everything we need and want to know then.

Barbour makes the call: It’s a biofuel company

August 24th, 2010 4 comments

Gov. Haley Barbour has issued the call for Friday’s special session, so let’s get right to it:

Among other things, Barbour will ask lawmakers to issue $45 million in general obligation bonds to a company that will produce renewable crude oil using biomass harvested here in Mississippi.

Biomass is a natural material used to produce energy. It can range from wood chips to grass to animal waste.

Barbour does not name the company or any of its locations — he said last week it would have multiple facilities — in the call, so we’ll just have to wait until Friday to learn those particulars.

To go with the $45 million that will defray some of the construction costs and equipment purchases, lawmakers will be asked to issue an additional $4 million in GOBs that will pay for workforce training related to the project, a program that will be administered by the Mississippi Development Authority. The actual training will be done by Mississippi’s colleges and universities and community colleges.

We’re still not done. Barbour also wants an additional $1 million in GOBs to fund research on biomass usage in the production of renewable crude oil at the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State.

All told, that represents a $50 million investment by the state in the $500 million project that is expected to create 1,000 jobs.

Also included in the call is an authorization that will allow the City of D’Iberville to acquire property for development, and an authorization allowing DeSoto County to build a new jail.

It all gets started Friday at 10 a.m.

Toyota officially kicks off hiring process today

August 23rd, 2010 10 comments

Toyota and Gov. Haley Barbour announced just a few minutes ago that the company has started the process of hiring the 2,000 people who will eventually work at the Blue Springs facility.

The news is not a surprise, considering Toyota and Barbour said that last week they’d  have details about the hiring cycle today.

So here they are:

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi is coordinating the hiring of its workers through the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the Workforce Investment Network (WIN) Job centers. That includes hourly skilled workers — the folks who will actually build the Toyota Corolla — and the hourly maintenance workers, who will keep the facility in operating shape.

Those interested can apply at www.mdes.ms.gov. Once there, click on the “Toyota” link underneath the Access Mississippi Online Services section. You can also peruse a list of the WIN Job Centers across the state at the same place.

Toyota expects to hire about 1,000 workers from the WIN Job Centers. The first Corollas are scheduled to come off the assembly line next fall.

Finally, special session confirmation (Updated)

August 20th, 2010 No comments

A few weeks ago, Magnolia Marketplace spent most of a Friday chasing a rumor that Gov. Haley Barbour was set to call a special session for Aug. 13, in which lawmakers would consider incentive packages for an economic development project.

The rumor turned out to be partially right.

In a press release that landed in our inbox minutes ago, Barbour confirmed that he will summon the Legislature to the Capitol next Friday, Aug. 27, to consider an inventive package for a $500 million project.

According to the release, whatever company is asking for the incentives will have locations across the state, and will provide $85 million in wages and direct purchases and supply 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through the company and its suppliers.

“Additional information about the company will be released at a later date,” the release read.

When we were first tracking the rumor, speculation ranged from a project in the Delta to one in Meridian. Theoretically, if the company will have multiple locations in the state, both of those regions could be involved. Or neither of them.

Here’s the press release from Barbour’s office:

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour today announced a special session at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 27, to consider an incentive package for a $500 million economic development project with locations around the state.

The project will bring $85 million in wages and direct Mississippi purchases, as well as 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through the company and the local suppliers. Additional information about the company will be released at a later date.

UPDATE: Just got off the phone with Dan Turner, Barbour’s press secretary, to ask one or two follow-up questions.

The first and most obvious: What’s the name of the company? Turner didn’t blink. “No comment,” he said. No surprise there. Barbour is the master at keeping things close to the vest until he — and only he — is ready to make it official. “We’re sticking to that policy,” Turner said.

Turner did offer somewhat of a hint about what kind of jobs the project will bring. “I think this one is tailor-made as far as jobs that have a long-range future in Mississippi.”

Since he’s been in office, Barbour has said advanced manufacturing jobs are what suits Mississippi best, things like Toyota and aerospace and the steel plants that have cropped up in the Golden Triangle. Turner’s “long-range future” description of this latest deal sure sounds like that.

Special session on the near horizon?

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace got a tip a few minutes ago that there was the possibility of a special legislative session Aug. 13, in which lawmakers will take up incentives for an economic development project.

Phone calls to a few folks who usually know about these things yielded a recurring theme:

No, they all agreed, they had not heard about the specific date for the special session. They had, however, had cross their radar the possibility of something going on in Meridian. In three different phone calls, Meridian came up unprompted all three times.

It makes sense. Toward the end of the 2010 regular session, a bill that would have offered state incentives to a wood products facility in Meridian died. At the time, a couple of people connected to the project said it wasn’t quite ready to take the last step to the altar of economic development. Maybe it is now. Or maybe it’s something else really cool that nobody (other than perhaps Gov. Haley Barbour) knows about yet.

Dan Turner, Barbour’s spokesman, did not immediately return a call to his cell phone. We’ll post what he says as soon as he does.

UPDATE: After checking around, one of the sources we spoke to about an hour ago just called back to say that the Aug. 13 rumor “seems to be true.” There still is no definitive word on whether Meridian is the target. But the Aug. 13 date is looking, for now, like a solid bet.

SECOND UPDATE: Another source we talked to earlier today has been doing some checking since we last spoke, and offers this: “Unless I’m badly wrong, it’s not Meridian.” So that’s the latest. Still no word from Turner, though if/when he calls back, we’ll share what he says. Stay tuned.

Few tears for old 82 bridge

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Aside from being the official birthday of Magnolia Marketplace, July 26 will be a big day. In Washington County, a torch will be passed.

The new Highway 82 bridge that will connect Mississippi and Arkansas over the Mississippi River will make its debut in Greenville. Our collegue, Wally Northway, is working on an advance story about it that will run in next week’s MBJ.

Wally, a native of Greenville, has a more than a few stories about the old bridge, which was built in 1940. Most of them aren’t happy.

For starters, the bridge was narrow. The roadway was only 24 feet wide and didn’t have a shoulder. You didn’t want to meet a tractor trailer on it. Nor was it ever any fun to cross it at night, especially if rain was falling.

Its location on the river wasn’t that favorable for towboats. Captains earned their money negotiating the bend to the north. The bridge has been hit by river traffic countless times.

Economic developers think the new one have a positive impact. Besides having wider roadways, the approaches make it easier for wide loads to cross from one state to another, making the transport of goods quicker and cheaper.

“The old bridge served us well,” Northway said. “But good riddance.”

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China investing in Mississippi steel facility?

July 8th, 2010 1 comment

A handful of national and international business publications and blogs are reporting that a state-owned Chinese steel company has purchased — or has serious plans to purchase, depending on which one you read — a 20 percent stake in a Steel Development Corp rebar facility being built in Amory.

While that’s not news by itself, what is interesting is that a group of about 50 lawmakers who call themselves the Congressional Steel Caucus are opposing the move. They wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week asking him to open an investigation into the Anshan Iron and Steel Group. The group cites national security and American job interests as their reasons for opposing the deal (if there, in fact, is one).

For the record, there are no Mississippi lawmakers listed among the Caucus’ membership.

We have an email into Steel Develoment Corp. If and when we hear anything back, we’ll post it. Until then, a few more details can be gleaned here.

UPDATE: Verbatim from a Steel Development Corp. spokesperson, who said via email this would be all the company would have to say on the matter:

“Steel Development has a number of investors.  As a private company, it is not our practice to share investor names or the level of their investments.  However, due to unfounded concern regarding controlling interests in our company, we confirm that Anshan contributed less than 20 percent of the total investment in Steel Development.

As Steel Development endeavors to finalize the financing necessary to create 1,200 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs in the domestic steel market, it has come under fire for incorporating this investment from Anshan. With Steel Development projecting production of 350,000 tons of rebar per year in a 120 million ton steel market (less than three tenths of percent), the promotion of national security fears due to the Anshan investment is, at best, difficult to rationalize.

Notwithstanding the extensive political pressure applied by certain members of congress and other steel producers seeking to impede competition by stopping Steel Development’s efforts to build one of the world’s most technologically advanced steel mills, we will continue to focus our efforts on creating jobs right here in America.”

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