Selling Southwest Miss.: The branding of a region

By Wally Northway/Mississippi Business Journal

JACKSON — It’s not just companies and products that need solid branding. Sometimes entire regions need a “hook.” One area of the state is hoping to get just that, and it is looking for immediate results.

Southwest Mississippi suffers from an identity crisis that hinders economic development in the region, which has resulted in sluggish growth and high unemployment.

Bob Smira realized this years ago. He was working for the Department of Economic and Community Development — now Mississippi Development Authority — in Jackson at the time, and was briefing a legislator on a project.

“He looked at me and asked, ‘What’s in this for the Delta?’” Smira said. “Southwest Mississippi needs to be identifiable (like the Delta, the coast, the Golden Triangle). We have to find a way to brand and market the entire region.”

Today, Smira is president and CEO of the Monticello-based Lawrence County Community Development Association in Southwest Mississippi. He admits the region is still not there yet, but feels Lawrence County and the other nine counties — Adams, Amite, Claiborne, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Pike, Walthall and Winston — that comprise the Southwest Mississippi Partnership are finally going to land an identity.

In August, the consulting firm Location Strategies of Atlanta presented its report to the Partnership on prospective target industries for the region. Over a year in the making, the firm recommended call centers, metal fabrication, plastics, large food-processing industries and general food processing as the best region’s prospects.

J. Britt Herrin, executive director of the McComb-based Pike County Economic Development District, said the Southwest Mississippi Partnership, which was formed nearly two decades ago, has commissioned target industry studies in the past.

What makes this effort different is that Location Strategies will “drill down” a list of prospective companies and site consultants. It is much more focused than business-recruiting initiatives in the past.

“This is more about matchmaking,” Herrin said.

Herrin said the region suffered from job losses even before the recession. The counties were largely successful in replacing those jobs. However, getting more of its citizens in the work force by recruiting new businesses has proven difficult. The sluggish economy simply added to the region’s problems.

“We’ve sort of been playing catch up,” Herrin said.

This has resulted in one thing all the 10 counties have in common — high unemployment.

The latest figures from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security show Jefferson County’s jobless rate is 19.9 percent, ranking it 78th among Mississippi’s 82 counties. Claiborne County’s unemployment rate is 18.3 percent (76th in the state.)

The lowest unemployment rate in the region is in Adams and Lincoln counties, both at 11.7 percent, ranking them 22nd.

The Southwest Mississippi Partnership set a goal when the effort launched to land new jobs within 18 months. That puts the deadline at the end of this year.

After years of losing jobs, this sounds ambitious. However, the report offered some encouragement. For example, the study identified food processors as a good fit for the region. Indeed, the region today has roughly a dozen food processors in operation. Thus, the infrastructure and work force is already in place.

The region also already has a strong metalworking base. A good example is Atlas Manufacturing Company, which produces traveling water screens for power plants and grappling buckets. It has expanded from roughly 35 workers in 2003 to nearly 70 today, and is looking to add more workers.

In addition, the report found that the region is good for companies’ bottom line. Compared to similar regions across the nation, the study found business costs were 20 percent or more lower in Southwest Mississippi. That, coupled with high scores in quality of life and solid transportation infrastructure, gives the area something to sell.

The Southwest Mississippi Partnership was also encouraged by a recent trip to Texas. Representatives of the Partnership went to Dallas, where they met with about 50 prospects. Herrin said the trip generated plenty of interest, and they have been invited back.

The region has received good news since the Dallas trip.

In August, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration awarded a grant to the MDA. The funding will be used to provide technical assistance to existing and developing small businesses located in Southwest Mississippi.

On the private sector front, Verizon Wireless announced the completion of its acquisition of certain assets of Centennial Communications Corp. located in 14 Mississippi counties, including all 10 that are members of the Southwest Mississippi Partnership.

Verizon Wireless said it was converting Centennial’s existing wireless network to CDMA technology, and would roll out high-speed mobile broadband service on a market-by-market basis in the newly acquired properties.

Even bigger news came when Gov. Haley Barbour announced that Kior, a Houston, Texas-based biofuels company, is planning to build three facilities in Mississippi to convert biomass into crude oil. One of those plants is to be built near Bude in Franklin County.

Herrin said the Partnership has gotten support from a number of entities such as Entergy and the MDA. The Commerce Department and Verizon Wireless announcements offer more encouragement. Still, the region’s successes of late have largely been the results of grassroots efforts, and the region will continue to look from within for future success.

“We’ve really done our homework,” Herrin said. “We have to make a big splash, and I’m confident that we will.”

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Information from: Mississippi Business Journal, http://www.msbusiness.com