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Turning Toward Prosperity

Eddie Nelson slows the big loader to a stop and steps down fromits air-conditioned cab into the wet heat of high noon.

Red and yellow hardhats move in and out of dark corners allaround him as he walks slowly across the spongy ground, soft withmud and sawdust and woodchips that have been dropped there forseven decades. The cruel rhythm of a jackhammer carries through thethick air from his left; fire flies from an acetylene torch burningto his right.

Up ahead, another pile of rafters comes crashing out of asecond-story bay as one of the oldest Columbus Lumber Co. millhouses, built in 1969, is slowly sawed and cut to pieces. It was atop-of-the-line facility when Nelson joined on in 1978.

Head down, he stops at a pile of mangled tin and squeezes a bentedge between his fingers.

“There’s been a lot of hard work put into this place,” saidNelson, who now works for Rex Lumber Brookhaven as an operationsmanager. “The place took care of a lot of families for a great manyyears.”

The grounds fall quiet as the demolition workers withWashington-based Rawlings Industrial break for lunch. In half anhour, they’ll crank their saws, light their torches and keepcarving away.

And no matter how he feels about bringing down the sacred,bleached-gray millhouses, Nelson will climb back in his loader andhelp. The old components have to come down before Rex Lumber canbegin a $10 million investment to make the sawmill new again andbring more than 100 jobs back to the area next year.

“We’re anxious to get it back up, especially to get all thosewho were laid off back in here and get them some income again,”Nelson said. “Not all of them have found work. I get calls fromabout 15-20 people every week wanting to know when we’re going tobe back open. I tell them to get a job somewhere if they can andwe’ll call them back when we’re ready.”

Nelson was one of the few who survived the death of ColumbusLumber in September 2009, when Bank of America foreclosed on thesawmill after it had incurred losses for almost two straight years.One hundred jobs were eliminated.

But good news came three months later when Florida-based RexLumber LLC bought the 145-acre sawmill and announced plans torenovate and reopen. The company sold part of the mill toAlabama-based Great Southern Wood Preserving, which is already openand shipping its famous YellaWood products from the site.

It’s been a quiet six months since Rex Lumber announced itsplans for the sawmill, but general manager Doug Boykin said the biginvestments and developments charted out in January remain allsystems go. The destruction wrought on the old millhouses byRawlings Industrial is the first of many steps that will be takento revive the grand old mill, he said.

“We are just at the very first of the project,” Boykin said. “Wejust started on the demolition, and it’s got about eight months tofinish. But the wheels are turning, and we’re ready to get itdone.”

Late this fall, the former Columbus Lumber employees will getthe call to come back to work, Boykin said, and the sawmill willopen and begin producing lumber after Jan. 1, sometime in the firstquarter of 2011. Rex Lumber executives are planning on a $4 millionannual payroll, but much more money will start flowing in thecommunity again once loggers, truck drivers and more members offorestry’s vast economic web see steady work again.

Federal, state and local leaders are hard at work to get thatweb spun.

Wirt Peterson, director of Southwest Mississippi Planning andDevelopment District, said his agency is “making progress” on a$1.3 million grant that will be used to widen and resurface BoyceDrive, a crumbly old road running into the heart of the sawmillthat Rex Lumber will use as its main point of access. The new roadwas one of a handful of projects company officials listed asimperative for their success in Brookhaven, as the new mill isexpected to bring in more logs and produce more lumber thanColumbus.

“I’ve gotten some positive comments at this point from theMississippi Development Authority and the Economic DevelopmentAdministration,” Peterson said. “We’re talking about creating morethan 100 jobs here in Southwest Mississippi, so that’s asubstantial project. The State of Mississippi and the federalgovernment know that.”

Lincoln County supervisors and Brookhaven aldermen are standingby to do their parts, having promised earlier this year to provideRex Lumber with select property tax abatements once the mill opens.Aldermen have already cleared the biggest obstacle, circumventing acity ordinance that prohibits industries from drilling their ownwater wells by allowing Rex to reopen a pair of dormant wells andpay a monthly rate for their usage.

If all goes according to plan, the pieces will fall into placeover the next six to eight months.

Some of those pieces are falling now – the wood waste is piledin the dumpster, the huge steel staircases and control cabs are setaside to be scrapped.

“It’s going to be for the better,” Nelson said as another pieceof truss work hit the ground. “We’ll have a whole lot bettersawmill once it’s done.”