Partnership targets narrower field of prospects

Published 5:00 am Monday, April 6, 2009

Lincoln County and its Southwest Mississippi neighbors arecollaborating on a short-term economic development plan that seeksto recruit a new industry to the area by the end of 2010.

Southwest Mississippi Partnership President Cliff Brumfield saidthe group of 10 counties and their respective government andprivate business leaders have, through an extensive analysis,identified prospective industry types that would thrive in the areaand are making plans to begin recruiting aggressively. The plancalls for a new industry to locate anywhere in the 10-county areain 18 months, he said.

“We have narrowed down our targets to those we can prove acompetitive advantage for in this part of the U.S., as well asinternationally,” Brumfield said.

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According to a summary of research conducted for the partnershipby TIP Strategies, of Austin, Texas, biomass/biofuels businesses -such as wood pellet producers – would be the best-fittingindustries for Southwest Mississippi.

The summary lists several factors studied in naming the biomassindustry as the top pick for Southwest Mississippi, such as the”significant” funding levels for clean energy in therecently-passed federal stimulus bill, the state’s status as theNational Renewable Energy Laboratory’s No. 1 ranking for biomasspotential and the existence of businesses in the state’s alreadyprominent, billion-dollar forestry industry.

According to the California Biomass Energy Alliance’s Web site,the biomass industry in that state contains approximately 3,600jobs and delivers $200 million in payroll annually. Biomass jobs inCalifornia have primarily sprung up in rural areas affected by theclosing of older industries, and have spawned a web of associatedbusinesses.

Southwest Mississippi is also a prime location for distributionhubs and food processing industries, the report says, listing thetwo industry types as the area’s No. 2 and No. 3 prospects,respectively. All three prospective industries will allow supportfor the area’s existing, similar business, Brumfield said.

“We kept a keen eye on advantages to support our existingindustries,” he said.

The partnership and its consultants arrived at the threeindustry types by various analysis, including an evaluation of thearea’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

Strengths listed in TIP Strategies’ research include locationand transportation accessibility, the availability of aninexpensive workforce, and “pro-growth” leadership. On the otherhand, the area’s weaknesses include a lack of technical andprofessional workers, low educational attainment and low communityparticipation.

Likewise, Southwest Mississippi has the opportunities to developits workforce, take advantage of stimulus funds for renewableenergy projects, while it is threatened by competition forindustrial projects, natural disasters like hurricanes and thequality of K-12 education.

The partnership’s analysis is the first phase of the recruitingeffort, one of the most intensive ever embarked on by thepartnership, Brumfield said. The plan of cooperation was urged andsupported by Gov. Haley Barbour, who has often said SouthwestMississippi has “been left out” of the state’s industrial growthand should be a top priority in future efforts.

The plan involves more than 20 government and private leadersfrom the partnership working with the Mississippi DevelopmentAuthority, Entergy and the Electric Power Associations ofMississippi.

Entergy Director of Economic Development John Turner said hiscompany has assisted in county-specific and regional developmentendeavors for 80 years, but the partnership’s recent strategy isdifferent in its aggressive, time-stressed approach.

“It’s really just coming in and having a sense of urgency to goout and land a prospect,” said John Turner, Entergy’s director ofeconomic development. “We’re trying to get a quick success. Thingsare slow, so we said, ‘OK, let’s just really focus on a smallersector – one targeted industry we think is our best.”

Turner pointed out that short-term success would eventually leadto long-term success, as a single large industry would pave the wayfor associated industries to locate close to their main hub.

The key to the plan is teamwork, said Industrial DevelopmentFoundation Chairman Bill Sones, who serves alongside Mayor BobMassengill as one of Lincoln County’s partnershiprepresentatives.

“If McComb, Natchez or Meadville gets a new plant, it’s just asimportant to us,” Sones said. “We’ve got to get out of thinkingabout competing with our neighbors and realize the second bestthing that could happen to us is for a neighbor to get a new plant.We’re all working just as hard because this is a regionaleffort.”

Though the partnership’s efforts are regional, Lincoln Countystill has an edge in recruiting new industries because of LinbrookBusiness Park. The 400-acre site is nearing completion andmarketing efforts have already begun.