By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi isn’t the only region trying to drive automotive manufacturing down the road to prosperity.
It’s been about 18 years since BMW opened a plant in Greenville, S.C.
During the Community Development Foundation’s Wake Up Tupelo and Lee County breakfast on Friday, South Carolina economic developer Hal Johnson suggested that Greenville’s recent past could be Northeast Mississippi’s future.
Toyota opened its Blue Springs plant in 2011, and the company now provides about 2,000 jobs.
Johnson said BMW promised 1,000 new jobs when it opened in 1996, and now it provides 9,000. In addition, BMW suppliers have brought 28,000 to 33,000 new jobs to the Greenville area.
“BMW has pushed us to have a world-class economy,” Johnson said.
Before BMW, Greenville had experienced a steady decline in its textile mills. Even after the company opened its plant, it took several years for Greenville’s economy to start growing.
“What BMC was bringing in was balancing out what was going away,” Johnson said.
David Rumbarger, president and CEO of CDF, interviewed Johnson in front of a packed, early morning crowd at the BancorpSouth Conference Center.
He said Toyota’s effect has helped counteract job losses in Northeast Mississippi’s furniture industry. The Great Recession limited some of Toyota’s potential impact, but more than 5,500 new jobs were created from 2009 to 2012 in Lee, Itawamba, Pontotoc and Union counties, Rumbarger said.
“We haven’t had 10 to 12 percent growth, but we have had growth,” he said.
If Northeast Mississippi follows down Greenville’s road, the region could be poised for dramatic growth in the coming years, Rumbarger said.
That’s what happened in Greenville, but the growth brought its own challenges: workforce development and infrastructure.
Technical education is key in the world of advanced manufacturing. Johnson said training adults helps, but long-term success means focusing on younger students.
Greenville has used public/private partnerships to start a magnet school for pre-kindergarten to sixth grade that focuses on mechanical engineering.
“You get project-based learning, not individual learning,” Johnson said.
A middle school with an engineering focus will open soon, and a high school is planned. There also are plans to open grammar, middle and high schools that focus on medical careers.
Success created a need for improved commuter routes, but there’s also been the unexpected problem of running out of site locations that appeal to incoming industry.
Economic development, Johnson said, is about constantly thinking about the needs of the future.
He also said quality-of-life infrastructure, such as downtown cafes and a new baseball park, have been crucial to retaining talented people and attracting more.
“That’s why you make the investments that you make in downtown,” Johnson said.
He said Greenville’s convention and visitors bureau hasn’t been afraid to try different tactics to get the right people in town. The agency sent personal invitations to people in different communities and provided them with free hotel rooms and meals when they visited Greenville.
“I know five CEOs of companies with 20 employees or less, all with kids in the school system,” he said. “All five came to Greenville because they had been invited by the CVB. There are more. Those are just the ones I know.”