Why Wellspring?

By DENNIS SEID
Daily Journal

BLUE SPRINGS – For now, there is no sign, no billboard, no banner proclaiming “this is the Wellspring Project.”

But ask any area resident what they know about it or where it is, and you’ll likely get a response.
“You talkin’ about where they’re going to build the car plant?” a middle-aged man driving a late model pickup truck asked. He was dropping off mail at the Blue Springs Post Office. “Go back under the highway til you dead-end. Go left or right. But you’re lookin’ at it.”

“It” is the 1,707-acre megasite certified to accomodate an automobile manufacturer and known as the Wellspring Project.

Developed and promoted by officials of Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties, who created the PUL Alliance, the project is the culmination of years of hopes and dreams that Northeast Mississippi can offer a site that will catch the eye of an automaker.

Mike Randle, owner and editor of Southern Business Development magazine, keeps track of the automotive industry in the South. He predicts that another dozen manufacturers will be building plants in the region. And the Wellspring site is well-positioned to land one, he said.

Wellspring is only one of three with the coveted megasite designation, which means a site is fit for an automobile manufacturer. It is a program being pushed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“The megasite certification was huge,” Randle said, “and having the Tennessee Valley Authority market the site is also huge. I think it has the No. 1 site potential.”

Wellspring is easy to find. From Tupelo, drive west toward Memphis on U.S. Highway 78 until you see the Blue Springs exit, then take a left at the stop sign. You drive two-tenths of a mile, going under bridges spanning 78 before you reach a yellow traffic sign with two black arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Trees of every shape and size fill your view. There is no open ground to suggest a major manufacturing plan might someday be built here.
This is Wellspring, as far as the eye can see.

Location, location, location

Shane Homan, vice president of planning and property development for the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, which is helping market Wellspring, said the site has everything a manufacturer is looking for – access to all major modes of transportation, the availability of a sufficient and trainable labor force and a pro-business economic environment.

“The automotive industry has found a strategic and competitive advantage in operating in the Southeastern United States,” he said. “So our region is very appealing to them. And some of the very same reasons why they’re attracted to the region are the same advantages that Wellsprings has to offer.”

Some of those advantages include:

• Industrialized workforce – “There are 228,000 people within a 50-mile radius of the site, nearly 60,000 of whom are in manufacturing,” he said.
Homan also said the ease of training workers is a plus. So, too, is the minimal union presence in Northeast Mississippi manufacturing.

“One of the central things company looks at is labor relations, and we have superior labor relations,” he said.

• Workforce training and development programs – “Our community colleges’ training programs, as well as the advanced technological programs available at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University is a tremendous advantage,” he said.

Ole Miss’s main campus is in Oxford and it has a satellite campus in Tupelo. MSU’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems is within a one-hour drive from Wellspring.

• Premier site location – Homan said the area is one of the last gaps within the Southern Automotive Corridor whose nearby metropolitan area has not been tapped. The site is approximately 76 miles from Memphis.

“That gives it a strategic site location,” he said. “It also means 77 percent of the nation’s population can be reached within two days driving time from the location. That’s a huge factor in being able to distribute your product to the consumers.

• Transportation access – Wellspring is adjacent to U.S. 78, which has received designation to be the future Interstate 22. The Blue Springs interchange is close to the site’s midpoint, while the Sherman interchange is about 4 miles southeast. A new interchange halfway between the two has been proposed to help separate car and truck traffic.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has agreed on the alignment and extention of a proposed spur of their mainline, which is located northeast of the site. And as a second option, the Mississippi Tennessee Reailroad has agreed to extend rail service to the site. This short line railroad provides direct access to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern railroads.

• Preengineered site – “This gives any company a critical 6 to 8-month headstart,” Homan said.
That’s because environmental surveys and reports have been conducted on the site, and it now officially located in an Environmental Protection Agency ozone attainment area.

It also means the site has had preliminary grading and geotechinal reports completed, which means a company doesn’t have to wait to have them completed first before moving on to the next step.

“We also have construction timelines of how long it will take to prepare the site,” Homan said. “We also know what size water lines, sewer lines and gas lines can be used.”

Electrical service will be provided through dual feed electrical service with voltage lines looped from the site to the TVA’s substation a mile and a half from the site.

Up to 5 million gallons of surface water per day can be provided to the site, with another 2 million gallons of well water available. Wastewater service can be provided to the site with a capacity of 4 million gallons per day. Preliminary approvals of wastewater discharge have been approved by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

“By preengineered, it also means we have a 6-million-square foot building pad that’s been graded and ready for use. The plans are ready; you just have to move the dirt … this site is open for business,” Homan said. “It’s clean, it’s green, it’s available.”

Selling the site

The megasite certification puts the site above others that don’t have it, said Southern Business Development’s Randle. Only two other sites currently have the designation, the Columbus/Lowndes megasite and another in Hopkinsville, Ky.

“Now if 10 more get certified, it won’t be so special,” he said. “But right now, it really stands out, particularly since SteelCorr looks headed to Columbus.”

SteelCorr Inc. is a startup company that has said it plans to build a steel mill to produce automotive-grade steel at the site. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour signed a $110 million incentives package on Monday.

“With SteelCorr going to Columbus, that’s one megasite off the list,” Randle said. “Wellspring has the No. 1 site potential now.”

Randle said Korean automaker Kia is the most likely candidate to land at Wellspring.

Mark Arend, editor of Automotive News, said he hasn’t gotten any wind of any automaker looking at the Wellspring site, but doesn’t rule out the possibility.

He also agreed that having the megasite designation is a plus.

“I have to think that helps Wellspring’s cause,” he said.

So now it comes to marketing the site, which Wellsprings officials have already begun in earnest.

But in May, they will tout the site at the International Motor Show in Barcelona, Spain where Homan said they would have a “strong presence”. There, they hope to capture the attention of Asian, European and American companies who might be shopping around for a location to build a plant.

What about any potential weaknesses at the site?

“Our greatest unanswered question was the topography of the site, which we have answered with the preliminary engineering,” he said. “It was about how quickly can we level it out and get a manufacturer ready to build. It’s been answered now, and we can give them the information anyone wants to hear.”

Contact Dennis Seid at 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com