The recession touched every corner of Northeast Mississippi, but Monroe County economic developers say they’re seeing signs of life.
While recent economic reports have been mixed, indicating that a recovery will be bumpy, the stage has been set for at least some measurable rebound.
In Northeast Mississippi, Toyota’s recent announcement that it was resuming work at its assembly plant in Blue Springs in Union County has renewed hope for a region saddled with double-digit unemployment.
In Monroe County, May’s jobless rate was 14.5 percent.
But the jobs picture seems to be improving. And few industrial buildings are available – another good sign, said Tony Green, the executive director of the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce.
For example, Green said that five industrial buildings vacant in Amory at this time last year are now filled with manufacturing activity.
“We have been very fortunate on our new industry and expansion projects,” he said. “Since January 2009 we have applied for and been awarded $2,122,000 in total grant money for five projects from the Mississippi Development Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission. This money was used for very badly needed building improvements and repairs. These five projects brought 330 new jobs to and retained 655 existing jobs in Monroe County.”
The former Amory Garment, Caye Home Furnishings, Advantage Furniture, Block No. 3 and Nautic Star No. 3 buildings are now used either by new companies or have been expanded by existing industries.
Green said only two large, vacant industrial buildings remain – the former PeopLoungers building in Nettleton and the Burris building in Prairie.
Citing some of the new industries that have come to the county this year, Green said HomeStretch LLC in Nettleton opened in January, bringing 35 jobs.
The upholstered furniture manufacturer is located in the former Advantage/Lucky Star building. By the third year of operations, the plant is expected to employ 175.
Green said the former Amory Garment Co./Block building was bought by a local furniture manufacturer with plans to move an existing business into it. That will free an existing furniture manufacturing plant for a new one that will employ 35 initially and expand to 80 to 100 employees in two years.
And in Aberdeen, Mississippi Peanut Equipment & Supply Co. opened this year, employing 10.
While recruiting new industries always garners headlines, economic developers say that the health of existing businesses is even more critical since they provide three-quarters of all new jobs.
“The overall feeling with our larger industries is much better than a year ago,” he said. “What we are hearing from all of our major manufacturers is that business is good right now. Orders year to date are well above 2009. Everyone, except maybe one or two companies, is at or above their pre-recession employment numbers. Our furniture industry is where most of the expansions have occurred.
Industrial expansions in Monroe County this year have included Townhouse Home Furnishings in Smithville, which began the year with 100 employees and now has 165. Nautic Star Boats in Amory has added 15 employees in recent weeks. HomeStretch plans to add 35 more jobs by the end of August, bringing its total to about 75.
Holley Performance in Aberdeen, which employed 59 in January 2009, now employs more than 135. Georgia Gulf, Tronox, True Temper, Holley and ITT all say that their operations are running very strong, with good demand for their products, Green said.
Tronox employs more than 500, while True Temper has more than 300, a third more than in January 2009.
Another good development for Monroe County is that three industrial prospects have visited the Aberdeen and Amory Port sites during May and four prospects have looked for smaller, less than 30,000-square-foot buildings in Monroe County during June.
Green said the quality of the work force in the area is one of its strongest assets, as well as having the Tenn-Tom Waterway and industrial land around it.
“At over 1,200 acres, we have the largest undeveloped waterway site available for industrial development in the state,” he said.
At the top of Green said the Chamber’s priority list is attracting a supplier for the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi in Blue Springs. The Japanese automaker is to scheduled to produce Corolla sedans by fall 2011.
Toyota will employ about 2,000 workers in Blue Springs once operations hit full stride by spring of 2012. Suppliers will employ another 2,000 to 4,000 workers, and Monroe County hopes to be in the mix. Seven suppliers have built or announced plans to build facilities in north Mississippi.
Toyota and state officials say other Tier 1 suppliers, as well as Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers should be making announcements in the next few months.
“We feel very good about our prospects of landing a Tier 1 supplier plant or two,” he said. “We are aggressively marketing our three best sites through our economic development partners and project managers at TVA, North Mississippi Industrial Development Association. and MDA. We have one site that is only 30 minutes from Toyota’s front door, four-lane all the way, with no stop signs or traffic lights. And we have two more sites that are only 40 to 45 minutes away.”
Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal & Chris Wilson/Monroe Journal