EDITORIAL: Optimism for growth

By NEMS Daily Journal

Three Rivers Planning and Development District – its role as administrator of the PUL Alliance, Toyota’s chief enabler in Mississippi, secure – has re-emphasized its role as a facilitator for continuing growth in existing industries and other new development in Northeast Mississippi.
Three Rivers’ Executive Director Vernon R. “Randy” Kelley III stressed in an interview with the Journal last week that failing to empower growth of existing industries like furniture manufacturing could leave the region with no net gain in manufacturing employment even with the Toyota impact.
The Japanese automaker announced last month that it would begin building its best-selling Corolla at its assembly plant site in Blue Springs by the fall of 2011. Employment on the PUL Alliance (Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties) campus is expected to be 2,000, with possibly an additional 2,000 jobs related to Toyota suppliers locating in the area.
“That’s all great, and we have all been working toward that, but we have to keep and grow the good jobs we already have,” Kelley said.
Noting that the region has 18,000 furniture industry jobs, Kelley said that number can grow with strong management and appropriate support.
“We have three furniture manufacturers in Pontotoc County right now (American, Ashley and Southern Motion) that combined have more than 4,000 jobs, and that’s more than Toyota,” Kelley said.
His point is well made.
If Three Rivers and similar agencies and organizations don’t maintain their historic and successful focus on further developing existing industries, our region could end up doing nothing but shifting jobs from one sector to another, not making diverse gains.
Kelley, noting that several still-confidential major developments in the region are in the works, said the goal remains strength in diversity. He cited major potential or early-stage developments in steel, ethanol and related industries, and one prospect he would not categorize, even in general.
Kelley, who has headed Three Rivers for 33 years, cited three specifics that have to be continued:
n Workforce development for all industries must be sustained;
n Developing diversity in the employment base helps avoid the dips and dives of disproportionate reliance on a single industry or sector;
n Completion of funded or partially funded transportation projects like a new Highway 9 and four-lane Highway 15 expands the marketability of the region.
Kelley said continuing long-time partnerships with government agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority provide the professional and financial infrastructure for many development projects.
Kelley noted that the new Highway 9, a $93 million project, is classified as an economic development program under MDA rather than the conventional route of a direct appropriation to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Kelley, of course, is one among many partners in the regional work of economic development.
The networking of developers is cautious and often covert (their keeping confidences rivals the CIA), but the results on the bottom line show themselves in announcements and fanfare with the arrival of new investments and job commitments.
“All of a sudden we may find out we’ve given ourselves a B-12 shot in the arm,” Kelley said.
Kelley didn’t say our region has wiped out the recession, but his informed optimism offers powerful encouragement.