Does the future of small Delta towns ride on the levees?

May 13th, 2011 3 comments

In next week’s print edition of the Mississippi Business Journal, we’ll recount our trip to the South Delta, where we talked with a couple business owners who are doing everything they can to protect their livelihood from backwater flooding. Don’t miss it.

During our conversation with Clark Secoy, who owns a package store and a B&B in Rolling Fork, he brought up something that, frankly, is chilling: If the backwater levees are breached, and water rushes into tiny towns like Rolling Fork and stays there any length of time, will those towns ever rebound?

“Everybody’s gathering up their parents, aunts, uncles and carrying them to Jackson or wherever,” Secoy said between customers at City Package Store, which his family has owned since the 1960s. “How many of those folks are coming back? I’m sure their relatives are telling them ,’Naw, just stay here with us. You don’t need to go back there.’ And it’s not just happening here. It’s everywhere.”

Secoy makes a fair point. The Delta — especially the small communities like Rolling Fork — has steadily lost population the past few decades. That’s no secret. For the most part, young people leave and don’t return, exceptions being those who take over family farms, and even those numbers aren’t what they used to be.

And that’s why towns like Rolling Fork need people like Secoy. He remains because his whole life is there — his home and his two businesses. The 90 minutes or so we spent in City Package bear that out. He knows everybody — and we mean, everybody. Maybe two dozen people came in the store, to buy booze, cash a check, get change for a $20 bill, whatever. One fellow, nicknamed “Possum,” was there just to visit, something that seemed to happen pretty regularly. Secoy knew them all, knew their family, and knew what was going on with each.

One gentleman asked Secoy if his home in Cary was in danger of flooding, and how long he had to get his belongings to higher ground. Another, it appeared, came by with the intention of borrowing money, but left without asking, the presence of two visitors apparently delaying him a bit.

Watching Secoy and his customers interact with each other was fascinating. You just don’t see things like that in Jackson.

Secoy is worried if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality, and the silent and relentless monster the levees have held back is turned loose, all of that will disappear.

“The store’s won’t have enough water, if the levees do break, to bring it down,” he said. “The store physically will still be here, and so will the 4 Pillars (his bed and breakfast that sits right across Delta Street). But it won’t be here, you know what I mean? God forbid if it does flood, this town will be dead. We’ll still have the county seat here, but we have 2,000 people in town . If it floods, say, 75 percent of the homes, how many will have flood insurance, number 1? And how many are going to rebuild here even if they do?”

It should be noted that the Army Corps of Engineers has said that, even though the water will top them by about a foot, the backwater levees should hold.

They better. There’s a lot riding on it.

Categories: 2011 flood, News Tags:

Clinton natives, businessmen on ABC’s ‘Expedition Impossible!’

May 10th, 2011 No comments

In December 2009, Nicholas Coughlin thought he had lost his best chance at appearing in a reality television show.

Coughlin, a Clinton native and resident who owns showmygame.com and develops social media application software for bugsgoviral.com, had made it all the way to the final group of 20 — 10 men, 10 women — vying to compete on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” He was one of the last cut. Before his flight left LAX in Los Angeles, he peered out the plane’s window to see Trump’s private jet sitting on the tarmac.

“So I pretty much left there wanting to jump out of the airplane,” Coughlin, 28, said of his disappointment at the time.

Fast foward to last December, and Coughlin gets a phone call from Mark Burnett, who is to reality TV what Bear Bryant was to Alabama football. Burnett tells Coughlin he remembered him from the Trump auditions, and wanted to see if he’d be willing to try out for “Expedition Impossible!,” a mixture of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” that will air on ABC starting June 21.

Long story short, Coughlin and two of his buddies — fellow Clinton natives Chad Robinson, 27, a Realtor; and Jason Cronin, 37, who owns several businesses in Pensacola Beach — were selected as one of 13 teams to compete on “EI!.”

The show filmed in March and April in the Kingdom of Morocco, in Africa. We asked Coughlin what it was like.

“Hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, describing the physical toll exacted by the tasks he and his team had to do, many of which included traversing the Sahara Desert and the mountains of the Moroccan terrain.

Coughlin couldn’t be too specific about what he and his team — who named themselves The Country Boys for the show — did while filming, since it won’t hit the airwaves until June 21.

“But it was the most exhilerating, exciting, gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done. It was terrible,” Coughlin said. “But I would do it again tomorrow.”

Categories: News Tags:

Vicksburg, and its waterfront, brace for the worst

May 9th, 2011 1 comment

If you’ve read this week’s edition of the Mississippi Business Journal, hopefully you’ve seen the story we did on how Vicksburg’s business community is handling the threat, tangible and otherwise, the flood is presenting.

Other than the companies that make their living off the Mississippi River, the majority of Vicksburg’s businesses will remain untouched by the water, thanks to the city’s bluff.

One retail outlet that is in immediate danger is Discount Furniture Barn, which sits on Jackson Street right next to the River, and whose owner, Mary Landers, was quoted at length in our story. Magnolia Marketplace and a photographer visited Landers at her shop last Wednesday afternoon. The water was maybe 60 yards from her front door step. Judging by a photo we saw Monday morning on the Vicksburg Post’s website, it seems to have arrived at her building, or at least gotten really close. We called the number listed for Discount Furniture; it rang unanswered.

Up the bluff, the Washington Street business corridor hopes tourists aren’t too freaked out by media coverage and stay away, mistakenly thinking all of Vicksburg is submerged. It’s not. The waterfront, where the casinos are, is, or will be shortly. The Military Park is high and dry, as are every department store and restaurant.

They’ll stay that way, too. To repeat: Vicksburg is not underwater. Unless you had a tugboat cruise lined up, you shouldn’t change your travel plans. The Mississippi Coast suffered through all last summer with the national media’s screams of oil-drenched beaches, when that simply wasn’t the case.

Here’s hoping Vicksburg and its sister River cities don’t go through the same thing this summer.

Toyota reveals production schedule; Blue Springs still on track for fall opening

April 25th, 2011 No comments

Lost in the Easter weekend shuffle was a pretty interesting nugget from Toyota about its production schedule in Japan and North America in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

Very early Friday morning — specifically, 1 a.m. Mississippi time — the company made known its plans to deal with the production issues it has experienced the past two months or so.

Here’s the gist, according to a Toyota press release: New vehicle production will begin to get back to pre-disaster levels as early as July in Japan, and in August in North America. By November and December, production should be back to normal here and overseas.

Obviously, you need to apply the best-laid-plans theory to that. There are a million different things that could happen between now and then that could throw the whole situation into another round of chaos.

From the beginning, stateside Toyota officials have maintained that Blue Springs, scheduled to begin making Corollas this fall, would not be affected by what’s happened in Japan. About 20 percent of the parts Blue Springs workers will use to make the Corolla come from Japan.

The latest production schedule does not change that, according to a Blue Springs spokesperson.

The current situation is having no impact on Toyota Mississippi’s construction progress or the planned start of production this fall,” Emily Holland wrote in an email Monday morning. “We are on schedule and looking forward to rolling a car off the line in a few months.”

Again, apply the best-laid-plans theory. In the three years Magnolia Marketplace has covered Toyota, it’s been our experience that the company keeps a stiff upper lip in situations like this, right up to the announcement to the contrary (the original delay of the plant’s opening springs to mind as a good example). We’re not saying that will happen here. In fact, everything points toward it not happening.

Just something we’ll be keeping an eye on over the summer.

Additions coming to Nissan’s Canton plant (Updated)

April 20th, 2011 2 comments

There was some Canton-related news at Wednesday’s New York International Auto Show.

To make room for a new Infiniti luxury crossover and the electric LEAF sedan at its Smyrna, Tenn, plant, Nissan will shift production of the Xterra SUV and Frontier pickup models to Canton.

The production shifts are part of Nissan’s overall build-up of its North American manufacturing capacity. Currently, 69 percent of Nissan vehicles are made domestically. By 2015, that will increase to 85 percent. A press release Nissan issued Wednesday morning said production of the LEAF would begin in Smyrna by the end of 2012, so it follows that Canton would start to make the Xterra and Frontier around then.

The Xterra and the Frontier are the second and third additions to Canton’s portfolio in the past year. Last year, Canton started making the NV Commercial Van, which was the company’s first North American foray into the light commercial vehicle market.

“With today’s announcements, we remain on track to localize our manufacturing base around the world – especially in the Americas,” Nissan Americas chairman Carlos Tavares said in the press release. “This drive for balance and flexibility across our operations is essential to support our growth plans in the region.”

 

UPDATE: Gov. Haley Barbour and MDA executive director Leland Speed have just released a statement on the Nissan news. The pertinent language:

 

“I am thrilled Nissan officials are adding two models to the production line-up at their Canton facility as a result of their plans to increase production in North America,” Barbour said. “This decision is a testament to high quality work performed by the employees in Canton. I congratulate them.”
 
The Mississippi Development Authority worked closely with the company to help facilitate the project. The agency provided assistance through the Momentum Mississippi Incentives and Job Protection Grant programs, as well as assistance for training and infrastructure improvements.
 
“Nissan has been a valued member of Mississippi’s corporate community for more than a decade, and the company’s continued investment in its Canton plant speaks volumes of Nissan’s confidence in its skilled Mississippi workforce,” said Speed. “I am proud of the strong partnership we have forged with Nissan over the years and am pleased we were able to provide assistance for this project.”

 

In pursuit of Google, Oxford presses on

April 12th, 2011 No comments

On March 30, Google announced that it would deploy its super-fast, next-generation broadband network in Kansas City, Kan.

The announcement came a year after applications started coming in from cities and towns across the U.S. that hoped to be the site for the broadband experiment. Google said it received about 1,100 applications.

One came from Oxford, where local attorney Stewart Rutledge led the effort to land Google’s grand prize.

Magnolia Marketplace spoke with Rutledge Monday morning. The gist of the conversation was this: There isn’t much clarity as to whether Kansas City will be the only winner. Google could set up shop in another applicant city, or it could put all its 1Gbps eggs in Kansas City’s basket.

“The original campaign was very ambiguous,” Rutledge said. “It definitely led the public to believe there would be at least one winner, and it heavily implied there would be multiple winners.”

For its part, Google isn’t saying one way or another. Two weeks before the Kansas City news broke, Rutledge wrote a letter to Google seeking to gain a little clarity about a timetable for announcing a winner, and if there would be one or multiple winners. The letter, which has gone unanswered, also made the case for Oxford.

“Google said they wanted this to reach people who were underserved when it came to broadband access,” he said. “Well, if you go 10 miles from Oxford in either direction, you’ll find 10,000 people who fit into that category. Of course, they have every right to do what they want. I would liken it to a grant program with less clear guidelines.”

For now, Rutledge said he and city officials will maintain as much communication with Google as possible, and hope for the best. Rutledge’s work hasn’t cost Oxford anything. He’s worked on this for free.

“We want to maintain the relationship, even though it’s been a one-way relationship so far,” Rutledge said. “We certainly haven’t let it die.”

Burton: No political favoritism behind budget bill language

April 4th, 2011 1 comment

Monday morning, Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, got a text message from Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, in which Newton asked Moak to allow the conference report for House Bill 1095 to clear the House, which would have sent it to Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk to await his signature. The text, Moak said, seemed odd because Moak had done no work on the bill. He wasn’t the committee chair that sent it to the floor, and he wasn’t one of the conferees appointed to hash it out.

HB 1095 is a bill that revises actual revenue numbers for fiscal year 2011 for several state agencies, including the Department of Public Safety and the Division of Medicaid. Language inserted either late last week or over the weekend, however, spells out the job description and educational requirements of the deputy director of administration of the Division of Medicaid. The educational requirements say a candidate “shall have at least five years’ experience in a health-related field and/or shall possess a special knowledge of Medicaid as pertaining to the State of Mississippi.  The Deputy Director of Administration may perform those duties of the executive director that the executive director has not expressly retained for himself.” The bill stipulates that the deputy director of administration would serve at the will and pleasure of the governor, and would be appointed by the governor.

 Moak, along with several other House Democrats and at least one Republican, opposed that language in the bill, saying it had been inserted too late in the process to property evaluate, and that it appeared to intend for a specific person to become the deputy director of administration at the Division of Medicaid.

“When several of us found out about it (over the weekend), that was the first time we had seen it,” Moak said. “We were really concerned.”

And when Moak got the text message from Burton in which Burton encouraged Moak to support the bill as a whole, Moak said it “kind of raised my eyebrows. I had no conversations with Burton about this beforehand. So somebody told him I was against it. That’s my logical rationale.”

Magnolia Marketplace called Burton to get his reaction to what Moak had told us, and to ask him if he was interested in becoming the deputy director of administration at the Division of Medicaid.

“I’ve qualified to run for re-election,” he told us. In that conversation, he denied having contacted any House member to encourage them to support the bill.

A few minutes after that, we called Moak back, who told us that he had received another text message from Burton, this one asking Moak to delete any text messages from Burton. Moak did not delete the messages, he said, because they could be the subject of a public records request.

Shortly after that, we called Burton again, who admitted to basically lobbying for the bill to Moak, but denied several times that he had been given assurances that the deputy director of administration job would be his.

“I supported it because the governor and the Division of Medicaid supported it,” Burton said. “If it’s for Medicaid, I’m going to support it. I’ve heard I’m going to be everything from Division of Medicaid Director to the head of the Department of Public Safety. Anything’s possible. Would I take the job if offered? I might.”

The job won’t be extended to anybody, because the language dealing with it has been taken out of the bill, after Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, made a point of order on the House floor that eliminated it. The conference report for the bill, minus the deputy director of administration language, has already been approved by both chambers and will now go to Barbour.

“I just didn’t understand the need,” Baker said, when asked why he raised the point of order that ended up striking the language. “We’re spending too much as it is.”

According to House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, who was one of the House conferees, the Division of Medicaid requested the language be inserted in the bill.

Division of Medicaid spokesperson Francis Rullan did tell us in an email this morning that the deputy director of administration position already exists, and that he is under the impression that it currently requires a college degree and a CPA license. We’ve followed up our original inquiry to see if the position is currently filled, what the salary would be and if the Division of Medicaid requested the language that was struck from the bill.

Before Baker’s action, the bill would have required that a candidate either have five years’ worth of experience in the healthcare field, or an intimate knowledge of Mississippi’s Medicaid system, or both. There was no requirement a candidate hold a college degree. Burton’s bio on the Senate website lists his education as having been attained from Newton High School. No college or university is listed.

Barbour spokesperson Laura Hipp said that the governor did not request the language be inserted into the bill, “but he wouldn’t have objected to it had it made it into the final version.”

Natchez casino developers hope deal reached with city by April 7

March 23rd, 2011 1 comment

We’ve written a couple stories recently about the stalled casino project on Natchez’s famed Roth Hill.

In early February, Natchez aldermen determined via 5-1 vote that the developers had failed to comply with the terms of the lease option agreement that was forged three years ago — namely, that they had failed to show sufficient progress on the project. In reality, there has been little tangible progress made since February 2008, only planning and design work.

Included in the failure-to-comply resolution was a letter from the city to Premier Gaming Group, the Lane Company and Natchez Enterprises that gave them until April 7 to come into compliance.

We’ve been trying to nail down an interview with Kevin Preston, president of Premier Gaming, for nearly a month now. We’ve traded emails, but getting him on the phone has been, well, a challenge. In one of the emails he sent in response to an interview request, Preston said he understood the frustration city officials felt, adding that Premier Gaming had no intention of abandoning the $45 million project, which they’ve been working on for two years after Lane and Natchez Enterprises brought the Kentucky-based company on board to revive the project. It had stalled in 2008 as the recession spread. “Our goal is to finalize funding and construct a first-class gaming facility Natchez can be proud of,” Preston wrote.

In another email Preston sent yesterday, he said he had actually been in Natchez the past few days, and was confident that a resolution would be reached by April 7, the deadline set in the letter.

What kind of agreement he’s talking about is anybody’s guess.

Will the Japan disaster affect Toyota’s Blue Springs plant? Let’s find out (Updated)

March 14th, 2011 No comments

While it’s certainly not the most important issue, Toyota announced late Sunday night that it has suspended production at all of its Japanese facilities in the wake of the earthquake and ensuing tsunamis.

Toyota said in a press release that it had received no reports of major injuries at any of its Japanese facilities, including its Tokyo headquarters.

The suspended production, though, got us to wondering if all of this would have any sort of effect on the Blue Springs plant, which is scheduled to start making Corollas this fall. We have calls into Toyota’s North American headquarters. When we hear back, we’ll tell what we know. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: We just got off the phone with Barbara McDaniel, Toyota’s external affairs manager for its Southeast operations. “The short answer is no,” she said, referring to the possibility that the shutdown in Japan could push back or otherwise delay the opening of the Blue Springs plant. “The production stoppage in Japan will have no impact on Blue Springs at this point. All of our other North American facilities are running on schedule.”

Obviously, this will be something to watch, as Japan begins its recovery. And watch we will.

KiOR’s offtake agreement a major step forward

March 9th, 2011 No comments

Double-shot of news about KiOR on a wet Wednesday morning, so let’s jump right into it.

First, a correction to our story that ran in the Feb. 28 edition about a study MSU did that determined there’s ample timber in Mississippi to support the three facilities KiOR plans to build here. We reported that each of the facilities — in Columbus, Newton County and Franklin County — would use between 2,500 and 3,750 tons of wood daily to produce the re-crude that can be later refined into diesel or gasoline.

That isn’t exactly right. The Columbus facility, which is under construction now, will only use about 500 tons of wood per day. The other two, while they are larger than the Columbus facility, will use “significantly less” than the 2,500 and 3,750 per-day total, according to a KiOR spokesperson. Sorry if we caused any confusion. There’s a lot of excitement across a range of industries about KiOR’s plans for Mississippi.

That was intensified Tuesday, when KiOR announced it had reached a purchase agreement with Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based Hunt Refining Company, which will buy and refine the renewable gasoline and diesel blendstocks and fuel oil produced in Columbus.

This is perhaps the biggest development since KiOR’s announcement last summer, because the company couldn’t take advantage of the $75 million in state incentives until it had reached an offtake agreement with a refinery.

No details were available about the length of the agreement.