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Working together for change in the Mississippi Delta

MEDC: Memo

The Mississippi Delta is unique in every sense of the word.

Created by millions of years of alluvial action from the Mississippi River, its image is deeply immersed in production agriculture, riverboats, periodic flooding and poverty. While it is true that agriculture has been and will remain the mainstay of our economy, what is less well known is the fact that the Delta has seen an increasingly important emergence of manufacturing and services over the last few decades.

Beginning in the late 1950s, it became clear that production agriculture would be revolutionized with mechanization thus vastly decreasing the employment base of the region. In order to stem the outward migration of the population, Delta Council created an industrial development department dedicated to attracting manufacturing to the region in 1956. The department, which serves 18 Delta and part-Delta counties, was the first entity in the Delta to take the then bold step of creating a new, blended economy in the region.

Although there were virtually no manufacturing jobs in Northwest Mississippi in 1960, today more than 40,000 people are employed in manufacturing, generating over $1 billion per year in annual wages. According to official data from the Mississippi Development Authority, there are now 636 manufacturing firms listed as doing business in the area. Total employment in all sectors of the economy is over 200,000. Not bad for an area that started seeking manufacturing employment such a relatively short time ago.

The manufacturing base of the Delta is also diverse and includes such companies as:

• Baxter Healthcare, Cleveland — 1,000+

• Brintons U. S. Axminister, Greenville — 480

• Viking Range, Greenwood — 850

• Cooper Tire, Clarksdale — 235

• Delta Pride, Indianola — 950

• Mississippi Chemical, Yazoo City — 500

While it would be impossible to list every company that contributes to the economy of our area and the state, it is clear that the move to balance agriculture with industry is paying off. In the last nine years, manufacturing wages have increased 47%. Per capita income has risen 72% as opposed to 62% for Mississippi as a whole. And retail sales have jumped from a 1990 figure of $2.8 billion to a 1999 level of just over $5 billion.

The progress that has been achieved has almost always been tied to our deep sense of regional cooperation. From the early days when Delta Council focused on flood control to today’s expanded program of work, we have sought to pull together regional interests. This has led to better highways, increased funding for agricultural research and a very strong regional coalition in the area of economic and community development.

In today’s competitive environment for manufacturing jobs, it is more important than ever to maximize limited resources and work together for the common good.

As a result, the development department of Delta Council has joined with a number of area chambers of commerce and industrial foundations to create the Mississippi Delta Developers Association. This group has literally changed the way we do industrial recruiting in Northwest Mississippi. Rather than operating in a purely parochial fashion, the group has gone to great lengths to cooperate in ways that help both the area and individual communities.

Beginning several years ago, the group has:

• Identified target company sectors

• Advertised jointly

• Conducted joint trade missions

• Coordinated prospect visits

• Worked to ensure positive economic development legislation

• Consulted with congressional leadership on Federal legislation important to the area

• Worked to create the Delta Workforce Investment Area

The Delta still has a long way to go. We are an area that has the dual challenge of high unemployment and a shortage of skilled labor. A significant portion of our labor force is not currently equipped to compete for jobs that require a highly educated workforce. And the first five months of this year have produced an unprecedented number of plant closures and layoffs. We must do a better job in recruiting, existing industry support, education and workforce training.

In summary, I would quote long time legislative leader Charlie Capps Jr.: “The Delta is a special place with special needs.”

Working together we can and will meet those needs. Until the Delta is prosperous, Mississippi cannot be fully successful. We certainly plan on doing our part.

Mark Manning is director of development for the Delta Council in Stoneville. Members of the Mississippi Economic Development Council provide a weekly column to the Mississippi Business Journal. MEDC, which was established in 1963, is comprised of nearly 600 economic development professionals and business leaders who are interested in making their Mississippi communities better places in which to live and work.


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