OUR OPINION: Opportunity awaits some after Lane plant’s closing

The troubling and largely unexpected announcement on Tuesday that Heritage Home Group, Inc. will close its 480-employee plant in Saltillo means troubling times for many of the soon-to-be unemployed workers at the Lane Furniture Industries factory.

Lane is Saltillo’s largest employer, and replacing the jobs that will end in March is no small task for the north Lee County city’s leaders or for the families impacted.

Lane remains in the process of finding permanently firm footing after going through a bankruptcy in 2013. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security said it had not received additional details, but HHG also announced the closing of two plants in Thomasville, N.C., and said those employees would not be offered positions elsewhere. In its letter to MDES, Heritage Home Group said the closure in Saltillo is expected to be permanent and that no employees would be retained in Saltillo.

If there is good fortune involved it is the active hiring stance of several other furniture manufacturers in Northeast Mississippi, historically the heartland of upholstered work in Mississippi. Availability isn’t a guarantee, but the possibility exists that at least some of the Lane employees could find comparable jobs with other manufacturers.

In the broader context, economic development agencies like the Mississippi Development Authority and the private-sector Community Development Foundation in Tupelo are in the business of finding new jobs, replacement jobs and better jobs.

The furniture sector in Mississippi has lost several thousand jobs in recent years to movement offshore, due to general business conditions like those cited in the Lane closure, and the not unusual closing of entrepreneurial operations that for one reason or another did not sustain profitability.

The Great Recession that began in late 2007 didn’t help matters. Economic downturns can be overcome with diversification and opportunistic investment in new ventures and new methods, as happened in the economic sea change in the years following World War II.

Mississippi State University’s Franklin Furniture Institute says the state’s furniture industry – the bulk of it centered in Northeast Mississippi – employs about 18,000 in manufacturing and another 21,000 with suppliers.

Plus, Northeast Mississippi had significant gains in jobs in 2013, a fact that provides useful momentum moving ahead.