– African proverb
By looking to the past, we may get a glimpse of our future. In less than a century, Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi turned a downtrodden economy into a model that draws scrutiny from community and economic leaders who want to know how the region did it.
They did it with a variety of tools. One is the “Tupelo Spirit,” which weaves its way beyond the invisible borders of the city and Lee County and embraces a spirit of working together for the common good.
That spirit, championed by the likes of longtime Daily Journal publisher George McLean and other visionary business leaders through the years, believed strongly that regional partnerships and relationships were critical in transforming the social and economic fabric of the communities where they lived, worked and served.
By working together, the region moved its economy along, from growing cotton to raising dairy cattle, from making textiles and apparel to building furniture.
Today, Tupelo serves as the retail, medical and financial hub of Northeast Mississippi, its spokes reaching the other 15 counties that make up the region.
The region also has landed what Community Development Foundation President and CEO David Rumbarger calls “the big kahuna” – the Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Blue Springs, with its promise of thousands of jobs as it produces the popular Corolla sedan.
And barring an unforeseen development, Toyota will be the economic engine for the next decade, creating opportunities as well as challenges for the current pillars of the region’s economy.
“You ask what’s next. We had cotton, dairy, furniture … automotive is the next big thing,” says Rumbarger. “Our goal in recruiting an automobile manufacturer was to jump-start and prepare the base for that next big thing. ... Automotive was the big kahuna, the thing that had to make it work.
“We’re not looking at brand new sectors. We’re looking to grow and expand on what we have.”
And as it turns out, the easy part was landing Toyota. The most difficult days lie ahead as the region must cope with balancing the need to support existing industry and nurturing the “next big thing” in Toyota and its suppliers.
It doesn’t have to be either-or, leaders like Three Rivers Planning and Development District Executive Director Randy Kelley insist.
“I see 10 years from now a manufacturing base that’s strengthened,” he said. “Our furniture industry is unparalleled. Even if you add up Toyota and all the other industries together you don’t have the numbers furniture has. But there’s no doubt that Toyota and the automotive industry, together with our strong support of our existing industry, will continue to grow our economy.”
Manufacturing in the region has long been dominated by the furniture industry, which employs some 30,000 people directly and indirectly.
But for the last decade, globalization has chipped away at the industry by providing cheaper labor overseas.
A $5 billion industry in the state, furniture has lost more than 11,200 jobs since March 2002. Recent additions and expansions have slowed the decline.
But leaders also think that the automotive industry, with its advanced manufacturing techniques, will provide a boost for all area manufacturers, including furniture. Those who aren’t implementing processes like just-in-time delivery or lean manufacturing might be counting their days.
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Toyota’s presence, along with national and global trends, has implications for more than manufacturing. Almost every other vital aspect of the Tupelo area’s economy – health care, banking, retail, tourism – faces a changing future. Quality-of-life factors, including education to support the more demanding jobs, assume a more important role.
“Lifetime employment at a single place is no longer the case in manufacturing,” Rumbarger said. “You’ve got to have the skills and abilities, too, and that goes back to education.”
Said State Economist Darrin Webb: “Quality education is one of the best economic development tools there is. Industries look for places where their employees can know their children are getting a good education. People go to areas where there is good quality education.”
In health care, the aging baby boomer population will mean not only more services, but more workers.
“Because of the aging population, health care is going to be a growth industry,” said Webb. “It can’t help but grow.”
In Northeast Mississippi, hospitals in Tupelo and Starkville are building bigger, more modern patient rooms while Oxford is preparing to build an all-new hospital.
Other sectors, already strong in Northeast Mississippi, are poised to build for the future.
With the job and income growth expected during the next few years, the region’s retail and financial sectors should benefit.
As the region’s hub for retail, Tupelo and Lee County pulled in $1.8 billion in sales last year, and experts say there’s room for growth.
Two of the state’s top four largest financial institutions are based in Tupelo in BancorpSouth and Renasant, with combined assets of nearly $18 billion
For now, BancorpSouth is ranked first with about $13.6 billion in assets, while Renasant is fourth, with about $4.3 billion in assets.
A merger of current No. 3 Hancock bank with Whitney Bank of Louisiana later this year will move the Gulfport-based bank to the top.
To take advantage of the opportunities, however, the area has to overcome considerable obstacles. Most of the 16 counties suffer from double-digit unemployment rates, and Northeast Mississippi’s education attainment level – the number of people with diplomas and degrees – trails not only the nation but the state.
But even in those areas work has begun, including the creation of a task force consisting of leaders from Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi to look at ways to move the area forward.
“When I talk to groups around the state, especially in Northeast Mississippi, I talk about the importance of education, specifically higher education and the role it has to play to move our state forward,” Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum said.
That type of cooperation, Rumbarger says, is vital as the new economy takes shape.
“Let’s dream that Northeast Mississippi continues to grow and Toyota’s employment continues to grow,” he said. “Let’s say Toyota opens Phase 1 and announces a Phase 2 and gets Prius production for the U.S. Then we’re pretty much looking at double what we’re seeing this year to employ at 4,000 to 5,000.
“Where do those people come from? Where do they live? How does downtown look? How does housing look and what affect do they have on our socioeconomic pillars like our schools, government, taxation?
“The last 10 years was scratching and fighting for what the next century would look like. Now we have a perspective on that, how do we gobble all that and maintain what you and I appreciate as a high quality of life?”