By Bob Johnson
The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The governors of Alabama and Mississippi formalized plans Thursday to work together to locate new industry for the poor, rural Black Belt region that straddles both states.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed a letter of intent to participate in the joint project, which they hope will benefit economically depressed region of southwest Alabama and southeast Mississippi.
The agreement would allow the two states to participate in a joint project anywhere along the states' borders from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee line.
But it is aimed specifically at the Black Belt, a term first used a century ago by ex-slave Booker T. Washington to describe a section of Alabama known for its dark, rich soil. Historians and demographers have broadened it since to include the entire region, which is characterized by low employment, low incomes, low education levels, poor health and high infant mortality.
“We're going to take what's the best of both states to help us compete for economic development projects,” Riley said as the two governors signed the letter in a ceremony at the Alabama Capitol.
According to the agreement, both states would share in the cost and the benefits from any joint project.
“We are committed to crossing state lines and political lines to improve the quality of life for the people of Alabama and Mississippi,” said Musgrove, a Democrat.
Riley, a Republican, said Legislatures in the two states will have to pass legislation setting up the framework for the joint effort.
Alabama Development Office Director Neal Wade said industry-hunting officials from the two states have already been talking with industrial prospects about locating along their border. He said potential projects could occur all along the border, but that an ideal location would be along the Interstate 20/59 corridor between York, Ala., and Meridian, Miss.
“We realize that along Interstate 20 is a very attractive area,” Wade said.
Riley has also created a commission to make recommendations on ways to improve economic conditions in the Black Belt region. Members have yet to be appointed to the commission, which is to be chaired by state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma. But Riley said he will work on putting the commission together after the regular session of the Legislature ends next week.
Musgrove said he believes the agreement will help remove the perception that Alabama and Mississippi are behind the rest of the nation in many areas.
“In times past, the question has been 'why Mississippi' and 'why Alabama,”' Musgrove said. “This moves us forward to ask 'why not Mississippi' and 'why not Alabama.”'