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Mississippi making significant strides

Swoope and his team were ready for downturn and have reacted with more business for state

Mississippi has made significant gains in economic development despite facing the effects of a national recession, Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) officials said.

The MDA is hoping that momentum will continue.

Gray Swoope

Gray Swoope

“In April 2008, we still had record employment, but in September, we saw the markets fall down,” said Gray Swoope, executive director of the MDA.

Economic development officials saw the trouble to come by watching WARN notices, a federal law that requires notification to employees for plant closures and layoffs. They saw huge increases.

“Some of those losses were through the cyclical nature of business, but because it was up so much, we knew this was something the likes of which this group, this administration, had never seen,” Swoope said.

The executive director said his team took a look at its resources and began to adjust. While facing a budget cut, the MDA shifted some positions while adding employees in key areas such as the existing industry and business segment.

“We added project managers because we didn’t want to miss any opportunities for the creation of jobs,” he said.

Additionally, his team talked to major employers in the state to determine their approach to survival.

“We’ve had several opportunities to step in and work with existing industries,” he said, noting that the MDA helped United Chair in Bruce, which is adding 125 new jobs.

But, Swoope said Mississippi is still an economic development competitor despite the downturn.

“Believe it or not, we’ve had some successes,” he said. “We’re competing more than ever and focusing on our gains.”

Among the progressive projects made in Mississippi this year noted by Swoope include:

– The $175-million expansion of Alliant Techsystem’s Iuka plant, which plans to employ about 800 in eight years.

– The construction of a Handy Hardware distribution facility in Meridian. The company plans to create 150 new jobs and invest up to $20 million in the facility.

– The 32,000-square-foot facility expansion of Cooper Tire in Tupelo.

– The $49-million construction in Hattiesburg of a Pepsi Bottling facility by Wis-Pak.

– Starkville-based Camgian’s acquisition of the Cypress Semiconductor operation, which had announced the closure of its Mississippi facility.

Swoope also cited the announcement in June of a research partnership between GE Aviation’s Composites Operation in Batesville and the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

GE Aviation, which opened a 300,000-square-foot facility in Batesville a year ago, will partner with the university’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials to develop new materials for the GE Aviation engines.

GE Aviation also partnered with Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory to demonstrate the manufacture of composite components and develop new manufacturing processes for composites.

“We’re creating capacity in the aerospace industry in this state like we’ve never seen,” Swoope said. “It’s critical for us to continue to link the work we’re doing at industries with our four-year universities and community colleges with recruitment and workforce training as we bring in new businesses.”

Another economic development sector springing up in Mississippi is energy.

“We’re seeing all kinds of activity in the energy sector, with companies that use Mississippi resources to develop energy,” Swoope said.

He particularly noted Mississippi Power’s intent to build a $2.5-billion integrated gasification combined cycle power plant in Kemper County. The plant would be the first advanced gasification generating facility with carbon capture capabilities in Mississippi and one of the first in the nation.

The expansion of the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula and the multiple opportunities for producing biofuels with the state’s forest and agriculture industries are positives for the state, Swoope said.

While manufacturing is an important sector, Swoope said, the state’s economic development can’t rely exclusively on it.

“We have to think big and be relentlessly competitive,” he said.

One area that needs to be promoted is the state’s blues heritage, which, he said, can create true economic wealth.

He noted the success of Clarksdale’s Ground Zero and Indianola’s B.B. King Museum. Since the museum opened a year ago, sales tax revenues and visitor expenditures have increased, spurring the Delta town’s economy.

“That economic success is directly driven by culture,” he said.

Yet, Swoope said, economic development officials cannot focus on one segment to create jobs and economic wealth.

“We are moving ahead,” he said. “Look at companies like Toyota, GE Aviation and (Alliant Techsystems), they all picked Mississippi and not because we had a strong background (in their field).”

“We have great momentum, and we can’t afford to stop. We have to continue to focus on the difference-making sectors that will create opportunities for economic wealth and opportunities for improvement, and that will bring everybody up.”

By LAURA SMITH I Contributor
laurahoughsmith@gmail.com

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