Economic Development in the World's Fourth Largest Economy
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The Most Southern Place on Earth

As manufacturing continues its incredible surge in the South, will the next 10 years be the Mississippi River Delta Region's best chance ever to move forward?

By Mike Randle

In August of 2012, I got lost in the American South's Mississippi River Delta region. I had just visited with Sue McGowan, who heads up economic development in Paragould, Ark., and Kirkley Thomas, who does the same with the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. After my Paragould visit, I headed east.

It was early evening on Wednesday, August 29, 2012, but the sun was shining bright on that summer day. I was traveling from Paragould to Blytheville, Ark., where I planned to stay the night, and the route took me through part of the Missouri Bootheel. I made a wrong turn and ended up on a dusty road. Regardless, I kept driving since I knew I was at least headed in the right direction, which was dead south.

After a few miles I got out of my rental car just to take in the magnificent view of the flat-as-a-board land filled with crops in perfect rows. As far as the eye could see in every direction were soybeans, I think. They were all around me. In fact, the crops and the farmland were so vast I felt consumed by them. I was in the most rural -- maybe the most Southern -- place on earth, I thought. After driving 10 miles or more, I finally found a paved road and I continued on my trek to Blytheville.

I have visited lots of places in the American South, nearly 2,000 different cities and counties. Since there are only 155 metropolitan areas in the South (out of 381 in the U.S.), that means I have visited about 1,700 small Southern counties and towns. One thing I learned a long time ago; all of those 1,700 rural places I have visited have a story to tell. . .it's just that many of them can't afford to tell it.

And what story does the eight-state Mississippi River Delta region have to tell? How much time do you have? The Delta is home to the tiniest of hamlets as well as to some of the most thriving metropolitan areas in the country. But there are two things almost every place in the Mississippi River Delta has in common -- the Mississippi River and flat land, and plenty of it.

The Delta region, as defined by the Delta Regional Authority, is made up of 252 counties and parishes in eight states.The Delta region, made up of 252 counties and parishes in eight states -- as defined by the Delta Regional Authority -- is one of the most historic, culturally rich parts of the country. Yet, daily life remains a struggle for many in some areas of the Delta, where nearly 10 million people live from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky.

"You can't out-poor the Delta," said Chris Masingill, Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, a federally backed development agency that works to improve all aspects of life in the Delta region. Masingill gave that quote for a story on the region he serves that was published by The Economist magazine last summer.

You can't out-Southern the Delta either. From the website "Southern Spaces," Rupert Vance wrote in the 1930s of the "cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed" Mississippi Delta as the "deepest South." In the 1980s, Richard Ford called the Delta, "the South's South." And in the 1990s, historian James Cobb referred to the Delta as "the most Southern place on earth."

Today, the South is defined as a diverse economic engine that drives the nation's economy. Go ahead and pick your economic indicator, whatever it might be. It can be population, GDP, the number of metros in the U.S., retail purchases, manufacturing jobs, service jobs -- whatever it is -- the South always accounts for right around 40 percent of the nation's total. And while the Delta is described as an economic development challenge, its contributions to the South's and the world's economy are huge.

The South is also defined as Charlotte, or Atlanta, or Houston and Austin. Then add Nashville, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, Louisville, Tampa Bay, Dallas-Fort Worth, Baton Rouge and New Orleans and you have many of the cities that make up the majority of the "it" lists that are published every single day by some kind of media property or blogger.

Then you have the Delta. While all of those cities mentioned are shining examples of economic development gone good over the past few decades, the Delta remains one of the South's -- if not the nation's -- most pressing issues. The issue is job creation first and foremost in the poorer regions of the Delta. But how to get from point A to point B in those parts of the Delta region is as tough a task as there is in economic development.

That doesn't mean good things in the Delta aren't being accomplished. There are. And with this massive manufacturing surge the American South is experiencing, the next few years may play out very well for one of the South's most strapped areas.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed nine decades ago, the American South was the nation's biggest economic problem. Many of his policies and initiatives associated with the New Deal -- the Tennessee Valley Authority comes to mind first when it comes to the Delta region -- helped solve the issue of overwhelming poverty in the South.

However, the Delta remains the poorest region of the fourth-largest economy in the world, which is the American South. If anything, parts of the Mississippi River Delta have gone backward economically over the past 100 years. But there are many areas in the Delta that are thriving like never before.

But hope and hopelessness are forever entwined. The Delta region's potential as a hub for small- and large-scale manufacturing is as good as it gets in the South. And with manufacturing projects associated with reshoring and cheap natural gas increasing at levels never before seen, the Delta's future may be brighter than it has ever been.

The Mississippi River: The lifeblood of the Delta

The Delta is defined by its spine, which is the Mississippi River. The river is the lifeblood of the Delta region's economy and over a billion people in the world are fed by what comes down the Mississippi River. The Delta is defined by its spine, which is the Mississippi River. The river is the lifeblood of the Delta region's economy. Billions of gallons of water from the river are used each day by manufacturers, energy companies and agribusiness in the region. Agriculture dominates land use in the Delta, with soybeans, rice, corn, sugar cane, fish farming and livestock the primary products.

The Mississippi River is the third largest river basin in the world, connecting 31 U.S. states and two provinces in Canada. Cargo shipped on the Mississippi River has an annual economic effect of about $135 billion a year.

The 2,320-mile long Mississippi River is so important to the U.S. economy that in 2012, when the country was experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, billions of dollars were lost when barge traffic was slowed to a standstill at some mile markers on the river. At one point in 2012, the river's depth was about 13 feet below normal levels. In Vicksburg, Miss., the depth dropped more than 20 feet below normal levels. A 9-foot depth is required to keep the Mississippi River's barge traffic moving without delay.

The last time the river dropped that low was in 1988, and that drought cost the South's economy over $1 billion in losses associated with the barge industry having to lighten loads in order to traverse the low water level.

There were several days when the river was closed to traffic in 2012, while the Army Corps of Engineers scrambled to dredge those spots that were not at least 9 feet deep. When traffic stopped on the river in 2012, experts estimated it cost the country $300 million a day.

The barge industry on the Mississippi River is a $180 billion-a-year deal and it transports everything you can think of in bulk, including grain, steel, petroleum, sand and gravel. Shipping these goods by barge saves approximately $11 a ton when compared to shipping cargo by rail or truck. Without the shipment of the goods on the river, costs for consumers for just about everything would rise significantly.

In short, the Mississippi River is the largest shipping lane in North America. The vast grain and crop production from the Midwest cannot be competitively shipped to world markets unless it can be done via the Mississippi River. In addition to crops, a large segment of the U.S. gasoline supply is refined by facilities on the Mississippi River.

"The Mississippi River is the major economic artery of the Delta region and its communities," explained Chris Masingill, Federal Co-Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. "When the Mississippi thrives, our region and its economy thrive. There are few places that have a natural resource with so much opportunity for job creation, transportation, agriculture and tourism as the Delta region has in the Mississippi River. Through strategic investments in infrastructure and planning, we as Delta leadership prioritize keeping the Mississippi healthy and thriving, so that our communities, businesses and families may remain healthy and thriving."

Conversely, flooding on the Mississippi River also costs the nation's economy billions. The drought of 2012 was preceded by flooding in the spring of 2011. Some farmlands in the Delta were under 20 feet of water in the last major flooding event on the Mississippi, which caused $2.8 billion in damages.

The flooding of the Mississippi River in 2011 was so extensive that it affected 119 counties in the Delta region. It also tested the Army Corp of Engineers' system of levees on the Mississippi, a construction project that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China. The floods of 2011 exposed a wide range of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

In October, a group of Mississippi River City mayors met in Memphis at the two-day Mississippi River Economy Summit. The summit focused on urging Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for infrastructure improvements and additional dredging projects to keep commerce flowing on the Mississippi. Recently, some local communities have had to tap into their own budgets for dredging projects because of reduced funding for the corps.

The woefully underfunded corps forced the port in Hickman, Ky., recently to be left off the emergency dredging list. The Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership, came up with the $50,000 to dredge the Hickman port.

"This is a federal interest here. . .this is not a local waterway," Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. said in a story published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Mississippi River Economy Summit. The city of Memphis represents the heart of the American South's Delta region and "The River City" is one of the region's most important assets.

And, the mayors stressed at the summit, it's not just dredging that needs attention. Some locks and dams in the upper Mississippi River are over 50 years old and they need to be modernized to ensure commerce flows down the river unabated.

At the summit, Mayor Wharton said, "Almost half a trillion dollars of gross municipal product comes out of the Mississippi River cities every year." St. Cloud, Minn., Mayor David Kleis added, "A billion people in the world are fed by what comes down the Mississippi River. One out of every seven people in the world."

Here are some more eye-popping numbers associated with the Mississippi River and the Delta counties and parishes that are located either directly on the river or nearby: More than half of all goods and services consumed by U.S. citizens are produced with the water that flows through the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Additionally, over 90 percent of the nation's farm exports are shipped down the Mississippi River to Gulf of Mexico ports for worldwide distribution, much of that to some of the least fortunate countries on the globe.

Deepening of the Lower Mississippi River

Efforts also got underway this past summer on another issue regarding the mighty Mississippi and how it can further spark the Delta region's economy -- deepening the Lower Mississippi River channel from its current 45-foot draft to 50 feet. The Panama Canal is being deepened to 50 feet and when that project is completed in 2015, larger ships will be able to traverse the canal to the numerous Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports.

A study commissioned this summer by economist Tim Ryan and paid for by the Big River Coalition and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development titled, "The Economic Impact of Deepening the Mississippi River to 50 Feet," showed that allowing larger vessels access to Louisiana's ports would create $11.49 billion in increased U.S. production. Just an extra five feet in depth on the Lower Mississippi River would also create 16,991 permanent new jobs, according to Ryan's report. That calculates to $849.5 million in wages generated by those new jobs, a huge influx of cash into South Louisiana's overall economy.

Efforts got underway this past summer to deepen the Mississippi River to 50 feet up to Mile 232 at the Baton Rouge Harbor. The depth will accommodate post-Panamax ships that will traverse the Panama Canal in a couple of years. Pictured is the Port of New Orleans. Deepening of the Lower Mississippi River channel up to Louisiana's Mississippi River ports such as the Port of New Orleans, the Port of South Louisiana and eventually to the Baton Rouge Harbor, was approved to a 55-foot depth in 1986 as part of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). But the river's depth remains at 45 feet because language in that 1986 bill required that maintenance of the river depth beyond 45 feet would fall on the state of Louisiana. A recently revised WRDA bill shifts maintenance up to the 50-foot depth to the federal government.

The report estimates that opening up the river to a 50-foot depth to allow larger ships access all the way to Mile 232 at the Baton Rouge Harbor would cost approximately $300 million with annual maintenance costs of about $90 million.

There is a hidden gem to deepening the Mississippi River to 50 feet to allow post-Panamax ships access to Louisiana's ports. Other than it's $11 billion impact and almost 17,000 new jobs, the dredging would build thousands of acres of wetlands in an effort to aid coastal restoration in Louisiana. That's something that must be done at some point, anyway.

South of New Orleans, the Mississippi River Delta has lost over 1.2 million acres of land in the past 80 years. Some areas have seen the coastline retreat by as much as 30 miles. Louisiana is home to over 40 percent of the wetlands in the U.S.

The report continues, "At the end of an eight-year period of phasing in the implementation of the usage of the larger post-Panamax ships, the deepening of the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet will accommodate an increase of an estimated 24.36 million tons of cargo, valued at $16.26 billion."

Also in the report, "A large portion of the United States gasoline supply is transported as foreign crude oil to refineries along the Mississippi River. It is not an exaggeration to say that the economy of a large part of the country is dependent on the Mississippi River for both the inbound movement of raw materials into domestic production processes, especially crude oil, as well as the outbound movement of goods produced in the U.S. destined for world markets."

Top 10 Commodity Exports on the Lower Mississippi River, 2011

Commodity

Corn
Soybeans
Coal
Crude Oil
Vegetables
Pet and Animal Feed
Rice
Pig Iron
Gasoline
Cyanide Hydroxide

Short Tons

31,520,975
24,882,896
24,711,728
16,689,461
3,635,156
3,587,410
1,706,403
1,424,214
1,406,580
1,333,335

Source: PIERS

Top 10 Commodity Imports on the Lower Mississippi River, 2011

Commodity

Crude Oil
Bauxite
Urea, Slag Fertilizer
Pig Iron
Phosphate
Kerosene
Nitrogen Fertilizer
Fusel
Iron Ore
Limestone Chips

Short Tons

82,467,786
3,941,854
3,935,230
3,202,101
2,824,478
2,377,959
1,895,211
1,884,145
1,809,014
1,641,126

Source: PIERS

Examining the Economy of the Lower Delta: Louisiana

The Lower Delta, which we will define as the 56 counties in Louisiana, the southern half of the 47 counties in Mississippi and all of the 20 counties in Alabama that are in the Delta Regional Authority's (DRA) footprint, make up one of the largest industrial zones in the world. And because of the abundance of cheap natural gas, the region is growing every day.

Currently there are approximately $90 billion in industrial projects either announced or under construction in Louisiana, and almost all of that activity is occurring in the Delta in two different areas. The 70-mile New Orleans to Baton Rouge river corridor is experiencing an industrial revolution not seen in its history, as is the Southwest Louisiana region anchored by Lake Charles.

In fact, here is proof that the industrial revolution in the American South as well as in the entire U.S. is centered on that 70-mile corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and in Southwest Louisiana. Of the 100-largest privately held projects based on capital investment announced each year over the past 10 years in the South, the New Orleans region is No. 1 with 55 projects, Baton Rouge is No. 2 with 54 and Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana rank No. 5 with 24. Houston, which is not part of the Delta, is in third place with 36 and Dallas-Fort Worth is fourth with 25 of the 1,000-largest capital investments announced in the South over the last 10 years.

On a broader scale, of the 100-largest capital investments announced each year in the South over the last 10 years, 212 of the 1,000 came from the eight-state Mississippi River Delta region. That is an astounding total considering population in the Delta region (approximately 10 million residents) accounts for less than 9 percent of the South's total population of 115.7 million.

Yes, the Delta is teeming with large, capital-intensive projects, and the Mississippi River and the abundance of cheap natural gas in this country are the reasons. "You can't discount the Mississippi River," said Mike Eades, President of the Ascension Economic Development Corporation, where much of the petrochemical activity is occurring. "People underestimate the interrelationships among industries on the river. For example, few people understand how many air separation plants -- oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen -- are on the river and the massive feedstock that is here to support the petrochemical industry. People think those things are everywhere, but they're not," Eades said.

The petrochemical industry first came to the New Orleans/Baton Rouge corridor in the 1940s and '50s. Back then, manufacturers of feedstocks such as ethylene, methane and other products didn't have the luxury of an abundance of cheap natural gas to run their plants that has come with the fracking frenzy.

Construction is underway at the Methanex site in Geismar, La. In 2013, Methanex announced the relocation of a second methanol plant from Chile to Louisiana. Combined with a 2012 announcement of a first plant moving from Chile to Ascension Parish, Methanex is investing $1.1 billion and creating 165 new direct jobs.Today, companies like Canada-based Methanex are dismantling billion-dollar-plus facilities in South America, loading the plants' equipment on ocean-going vessels, and then reconstructing them in the Louisiana Delta. Two of those Methanex plants are now being rebuilt in Eades' Ascension Parish just to gain direct access to the low natural gas prices that are available on the Gulf Coast.

Over in Southwest Louisiana near Lake Charles, South Africa-based Sasol is building the largest single, privately held investment project ever announced in the U.S. to date, a gas-to-liquids facility and an ethylene cracker. The project is expected to cost $25 billion.

Construction at the Cheniere export facility, which began in 2012, made extensive progress in 2013. The multi-billion liquefied natural gas facility in Southwest Louisiana will be the first in the country to have both importing and exporting capabilities.Also in Southwest Louisiana, in the far western reaches of DRA territory, Houston-based Cheniere Energy is constructing what will be the first large-scale natural gas export facility in the U.S. and the Texas company was the first to be approved by the federal government to export natural gas.

Almost the entire state of Louisiana is in the DRA region. The state is home to 90 major chemical plants, 300 petrochemical manufacturers and 19 refineries. And with the Mississippi River and its own Delta region that empties into the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana has a geographic advantage that offers process industries associated with oil, gas and chemicals unparalleled benefits.

There are more than 7,300 miles of oil pipeline and 11,200 miles of gas pipeline that carry those products from the Gulf of Mexico to refineries in the state, as well as transporting the newfound gold that is natural gas to all parts of the country. And soon enough, the natural gas glut that is forming on the Gulf Coast will be relieved a bit when exports of the energy source begin in the next couple of years.

In short, this sector of the Lower Delta region is creating an enormous amount of wealth for all classes of Louisianans and much of it is tied to the fracking frenzy. More than that, the oil and gas expertise found in Louisiana is making lots of people rich worldwide. "Under every oil sheik's robe, there's a Boudreaux, Broussard or Thibodeaux," said Marion Fox, Executive Director of the Jeff Davis Parish Economic & Tourism Commission. She was referring to the expertise found in Cajun Country that is tied to the oil and gas industry there, skills that are exported worldwide to places like the Middle East.

Indeed, 88 percent of current U.S. oil rigs are located on Louisiana's outer continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana is the No. 2 crude oil producer (including offshore production) and the No. 3 natural gas producer in the nation. The state possesses tremendous intellectual capital and assets that can be leveraged to support cost effective upstream and downstream operations for both traditional and renewable energy industries. And much of that intellectual capital is used -- as Marion Fox said -- all over the world.

The oil and gas industry is immense in this part of the Delta region of the American South. In fact, in Louisiana more than 300,000 jobs -- one in six statewide -- are directly or indirectly linked to the oil and gas industry. The sector in Louisiana has an economic impact in the state of approximately $120 billion.

More than just petrochemicals

The Idea Village, in New Orleans, La., provides programming, mentorship, and networking opportunities for Louisiana's entrepreneurs in order to create a budding environment for innovation and economic success in south Louisiana.A little west of New Orleans and Baton Rouge is the Acadiana region of Louisiana, anchored by Lafayette. Oil and gas employment is strong in Lafayette as well, but all three markets in the southern-most regions of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta are emerging technology hubs as well.

For example, Greater New Orleans was named the No. 3 "Big City Winning the IT Jobs Battle" (after Silicon Valley and San Francisco) by Forbes and the "Big Easy" has been recognized numerous times for its technology growth potential, including Forbes naming the city the No. 1 "brain magnet" in 2011.

Baton Rouge has had similar success in the "it" rankings. Entrepreneur magazine named Louisiana's capital city as one of five "Emerging Entrepreneurial Hubs" and in May of last year IBM announced it is establishing a first-of-its kind software development center in downtown Baton Rouge that will house 800 workers.

"Through small-scale efforts such as local innovation incubators or much larger infrastructure projects that increase high-speed and gigabit connectivity, Delta leadership is investing in a technologically-advanced, innovation-rich environment for our entrepreneurs," Chairman Masingill, of the Delta Regional Authority explains. "This wealth of entrepreneurial capacity is translating directly into important research and development for local companies as well as investment interest in our region's communities by high-tech and advanced manufacturing companies.""

As for Lafayette and the Acadiana region, they are rich in technology-related ventures, so much so that Lafayette has been called the "Silicon Bayou." In 2012, IHS Global projected that Lafayette will have the highest growth in employment and the second-highest GDP growth of all 363 U.S. metropolitan areas. "Leaders in Lafayette have a fundamental appreciation of the vital role of technology in Lafayette's success," said Gregg Gothreaux, President and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

Central and North Louisiana: A manufacturer's paradise

Moving up the Delta region in Louisiana you will find a diverse economy with employers such as the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. The tribe runs a casino resort that houses over 3,000 workers in rural Allen parish. Roy O. Martin Company, a wood products manufacturer, employs over 1,100 in three central Louisiana parishes. Also, some of the larger employers in the rural South such as Boise Cascade, Weyerhaeuser, Fruit of the Loom, Pilgrim's Pride and Procter & Gamble have extensive operations in central Louisiana as well.

One company that is taking advantage of the vast timber resources in central Louisiana is German Pellets, the leading manufacturer of wood pellets in Europe. The company is building a $300 million wood pellets plant in Urania, La., that will create 500 jobs when it opens in the spring of 2014.

In Northern Louisiana, the cost of doing business is one of the lowest in the U.S. In fact, Forbes named North Louisiana the most competitive place to do business in the U.S. and KPMG Competitive Alternatives recognized the region as the No. 1 most cost competitive area in North America in 2008 and 2010.

The Northwestern sector of North Louisiana is anchored by Shreveport. But that city and parish -- which has had much success of late with some outstanding projects including Germany-based Benteler Steel -- is not in the DRA footprint. However, the rest of North Louisiana -- which is bisected by Interstate 20 -- is, including Monroe and West Monroe.

In March 2013, CenturyLink broke ground on the company's new Technology Center of Excellence, a 250,000-square-foot expansion of CenturyLink's existing corporate headquarters in Monroe, La.Monroe and Northeast Louisiana have also seen a large amount of activity in job generating projects. Like most parts of the Delta, the Northeast Louisiana region's economy is a mix of agribusiness and manufacturing. But Monroe has two outstanding white-collar employers in J.P. Morgan Chase, which employs over 2,000 in Monroe, and CenturyLink, one of the largest providers of communications and data services in the country and a member of the S&P 500. The company, which employs over 47,000 worldwide, is headquartered in Monroe.

The Northeast Louisiana Delta also features one of the finest industrial megasites for a large user in the Franklin Farm Megasite in Holly Ridge, La. In 2006, the state of Louisiana purchased Franklin Farm and the site sits directly on Interstate 20. Like almost everywhere else in the Delta, it is as flat as flat can get.

The site is surrounded by an additional 4,700 acres that are owned by the Franklin family and those acres are available for suppliers of a large user that builds on the megasite.

Alabama's Delta Region

Not technically in the Mississippi River Delta, the DRA's footprint extends to 20 of Alabama's most economically challenged counties, and it is the only state where the counties are not contiguous. If the heart of the Delta, which runs from Memphis to Vicksburg, or that field where I stood gazing out at the crops in the Missouri Bootheel, are not the most Southern places on earth, then the Black Belt of Alabama may be.

Not named the Black Belt for its ethnicity, but rather for its incredibly rich soil, this region's current unemployment rate is right at 11 percent. It was well above 15 percent during parts of the recession.

Officials of Golden Dragon Copper, headquartered in Xinxiang, China, preferred a rural location for its first U.S. plant, which promises to be the most modern copper tube mill in the world, according to the company. They couldn't have found a more rural place in the Delta than Wilcox County, Ala. Pictured is Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley at the facility, which is still under construction. In the fall 2013 quarter, the Delta Regional Authority announced grants to improve economic conditions in Alabama's poverty-stricken Black Belt region. One of the grants included $312,000 for the Wilcox County Industrial Development Authority's purchase of land tied to the development of the Golden Dragon Copper plant. The $100 million plant, now being completed in Pine Hill, Ala., will employ 300 to 500 people.

Officials of Golden Dragon Copper, headquartered in Xinxiang, China, preferred a rural location for the plant, which promises to be the "most modern copper tube mill in the world," according to the company. They couldn't have found a more rural place in Alabama than Wilcox County. The county had an unemployment rate of 19.7 percent in December 2010. Its unemployment rate is still over 15 percent as of November. In 2011, Wilcox County was named the 15th-poorest county in the U.S.

Once completed, Golden Dragon will operate the plant as GD Copper (USA). The copper tubes made by the company are used primarily in air conditioning systems and refrigerators. Golden Dragon currently operates 12 plants -- 11 in China and one in Mexico and soon one in the Delta region of Alabama.

The DRA also announced a $100,500 grant to provide for the purchase of state-of-the-art automotive technician certification training equipment as part of a multi-year workforce development initiative of The University of West Alabama. UWA, whose service area includes most of the Alabama Black Belt region, is providing certificates, associates degrees and bachelor degrees in varied manufacturing technology fields, and it is the largest undertaking of its kind in the institution's history.

University of West Alabama President Richard D. Holland remarked, "We identified improving this region's workforce as the No. 1 economic development priority, and are proud to partner with the DRA as we launched our initiative in August, 2012. We look forward to positively impacting lives of hundreds of workers over a sustainable, multi-year period here in Black Belt of Alabama."

The Lower Delta in the State of Mississippi

In 1935, David Cohn wrote that the Mississippi Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." Actually the Delta is much larger, as mentioned, with the region being defined by the Delta Regional Authority as running from Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Lower Mississippi Delta Commission (LMD), an organization created by Congress in 1988 to help create an economic plan for the region, defines the Delta similarly to the Delta Regional Authority. The Delta according to LMD is a region of 219 counties and parishes in portions of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

If the Delta is "the most Southern place on Earth," its heart is in the state of Mississippi. Cities such as Natchez, Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Indianola, Tunica and Greenwood are as "Delta" and "old South" as it gets and many times they are portrayed as such by Hollywood. One incredibly funny portrayal of the Delta in Mississippi comes to mind: the Coen brothers' classic "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" starring George Clooney.

But even the most depressed areas of the Delta are far past those days of the 1930s as they were depicted in the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" One of my favorite quotes in the movie was from George Clooney's character who said, "No, the fact is, they're flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole durn state. Yes, sir, the South is going to change. Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We're going to see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon," said Clooney's character, Ulysses Everett McGill.

Well, the fictional Ulysses Everett McGill was right. Energy providers have lit up the Delta region with some of the lowest cost power for large manufacturers in North America. Fact is, power generation in the Delta is not only some of the least expensive in the U.S.; it is also some of the most reliable in the country.

The power to manufacturers in the Delta provided by the Cooperatives in Arkansas is hard to beat when it comes to costs. We all know about TVA's incredible advantages for large and small manufacturers when it comes to incentives and costs, and others such as Alabama Power and Entergy run some of the largest electric loads in the nation at massive manufacturing facilities in the Delta, including steel, petrochemical, automotive and food processing facilities.

The automotive industry in the Lower Delta in Mississippi

Since breaking ground on its Canton plant in 2000, Nissan has invested over $2.5 billion in its Mississippi operations. And since opening in 2003, Nissan has paid an estimated $2.8 billion in wages at the facility.It's not just big petrochemical and steel projects along the Mississippi River that these utilities serve in central and southwest Mississippi. Part of the Delta region includes the capital city of Jackson, where a large automotive cluster exists as a result of Nissan's multiple line assembly plant in Canton, Miss. Nissan is Mississippi's largest private employer with over 6,000 workers.

I wrote this about the Nissan plant in Mississippi for our bonus issue in the fall of 2013 titled, The Southern Auto Corridor: The Center of North America's Automotive Universe. "In November of 2000, the center of the Southern Auto Corridor jogged a little west. That year, Nissan picked a site near the capital city of Jackson, Miss., for its second assembly facility in the Southern Auto Corridor.

"In May of this year, Nissan and its workforce celebrated 10 years of vehicle production at its massive plant in Canton, Miss. I was invited to the official opening of the facility and later that day did a show on public television in Jackson where I was asked, 'Mike, did Mississippi hit a home run with Nissan?' My response was, 'No they did not.' After a few seconds of silence, I said, 'Mississippi hit a grand slam with Nissan.' "

Today, the Nissan plant assembles an astounding number of models; the Titan, Armada, Frontier, Xterra, Altima, Sentra and the commercial van, the NV. Later this year team members at the facility will build the popular Nissan crossover Murano model for the first time.

Since breaking ground on its Canton plant in 2000, Nissan has invested over $2.5 billion in its Mississippi operations. And since opening in 2003, Nissan has paid an estimated $2.8 billion in wages at the facility. Last year it announced the addition of the Sentra model and 1,000 new jobs at the plant.

In the summer of last year, Nissan made the decision to build a supplier park near the company's Mississippi plant. The $50 million investment will create 800 new jobs at the Japanese automaker's first North American supplier park.

"That game-changing win for Mississippi just a little more than a decade ago, when Nissan announced it would call Canton home, continues to pay enormous dividends for our state," said Brent Christensen, Executive Director of the Mississippi Development Authority. "Simply put, that announcement put us on the map for automakers. OEMs and their suppliers are now found throughout the state, and Nissan's first-ever supplier park will take the 'just in time' delivery concept to a whole new level," Christensen said.

Examining the economy of the American South's Mid-Delta region

I have been asked numerous times over the past three decades what is the No. 1 site selection factor. My answer has always been "costs." The fact that thousands of plants picked up and moved to China and now are coming back in droves because offshoring to the other side of the world is not profitable any longer is proof enough that operating costs are at the center of the site selection decision.

At some speaking engagements, I have had CEOs of major companies want to fight me over that claim; that there is only one site selection factor -- operating costs -- and the rest of the factors jockey for the No. 2 site selection factor each year.

I understand that no CEO wants to be known as a cheapskate or tightwad for locating a plant in a low-cost environment. But the fact is there are two places in North America that are the least expensive places to manufacture goods, and they are Mexico and the American South. But if you look closely at the South, the Delta region is by far the least expensive place to operate a business -- particularly one in the manufacturing sector -- in the world's largest economy, which remains the U.S.

One company in Greenwood, Miss., knows the Delta region's advantages all too well. Viking Range, which was founded in the early 1980s, has been manufacturing its high-end appliances in Greenwood since 1989. Founded by Greenwood native Fred Carl Jr., Viking Range was incorporated in 1984.

The Alluvian is a cosmopolitan boutique hotel located in the heart of historic downtown Greenwood, Miss. It was built by Greenwood-based Viking Range's former CEO and Greenwood native Fred Carl Jr.After years of great success manufacturing his high-end ranges and branching out with other kitchen appliances and products made at four different plants in Greenwood, Carl gave his hometown (population about 18,000) -- known as the "Cotton Capital of the World" -- a huge tourism boost when the company opened the Alluvian Hotel. The Alluvian is a cosmopolitan boutique hotel located in the heart of historic downtown Greenwood.

Carl wasn't done helping his tiny Delta hometown. In 2005, he opened the Viking Cooking School, the Alluvian Spa and the Mockingbird Bakery. Over the years, Viking has been one of the greatest corporate citizens in the entire Mississippi River Delta region.

Carl said in an ABC News report in 2011, "This is my home, it's very simple, this is where I'm from, this is my home, so this is where it (the company's headquarters and plants) needed to be. We (Greenwood) were in a real serious state of decline. . .well before the time I started the company. We've (Viking) been able to create jobs, and become one of the town's biggest employers. We are real serious about being a corporate citizen and giving back to the community. We are in the most impoverished area of the most impoverished state in the U.S. So you can imagine the need for jobs here."

But in 2011, the recession was eating away at Viking. In 2009, the company employed 1,200 people in Greenwood at four plants, a distribution center and at the company's headquarters, located in the town's old opera house. By 2011, that number had dropped to under 1,000.

Carl finally sold Viking Range to Illinois-based Middleby, a food service manufacturer, in December of 2012 for $380 million. In a story published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on January 1, 2013, Carl said, "I am truly happy about this. It's going to be good for Viking employees and good for Greenwood. That was very important to me."

Viking's sales rebounded in 2013, but that didn't keep Middleby from laying off another 75 employees in Greenwood in November. The company continues to operate its facilities in Greenwood and celebrated its 25th anniversary there in 2012.

Where Viking goes from here doesn't matter. Its successful 25-year run in the Delta town of Greenwood, Miss., proves that high-end, quality manufacturing can not only be done in the Mississippi River Delta region, it can be done quite successfully and with great flair.

The economy of the Delta in Arkansas

There are two major markets in the South's mid-Delta region and they are Little Rock and Memphis. Both major markets feature dynamic economies and they are also outstanding places to live. Little Rock was just named by Kiplinger's Personal Finance as the No. 1 place to live in America.

New York-born Winthrop Rockefeller became known as the Arkansas Rockefeller. Winrock, as he was called, was a champion of the state's industry and eventually became the first Republican Governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction.Even in the capital city of Little Rock up until the 1950s, agriculture dominated the economy, and since the workforce in Arkansas was monopolized by agribusiness, it was almost impossible for industry to gain a foothold. But in 1955, Winthrop Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and brother of Nelson, David, Laurance and John D. III, introduced Arkansas to the world.

New York-born Winthrop Rockefeller moved to central Arkansas in 1953 and established businesses in Conway County, just north of Little Rock. Two of his ventures were Winrock Farms and Winrock Enterprises. He then became known as the "Arkansas Rockefeller."

According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, part of the University of Arkansas system, Rockefeller "found the freedom to carve out a personal space to address the issues of what was once the poorest state in the union."

For 20 years Rockefeller lived on 188 acres atop Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton (Winthrop died in 1973), and hosted more than 200 conferences and meetings that addressed such concerns as educational needs, rural economic development, water quality, race relations and public/private sector policies in Arkansas. The meetings were regularly attended by state leaders. They were also regularly attended by national leaders.

In 1955, Rockefeller became the most famous economic developer in Arkansas history when he was appointed by Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus as chairman of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. But "Winrock" was no Faubus supporter. Dixie Democrats in the South ruled in the '50s and '60s and Faubus, along with George Wallace of Alabama and Lester Maddox of Georgia, held court on the national scene in the region.

Rockefeller's campaign for the governorship in Arkansas as a Republican in 1966 was the first real transition in the South from "Dixie Dems" to the Republican stronghold that it is today. In 1966, only 11 percent of Arkansans considered themselves Republicans. That year, Winrock's policies -- ironically very Democratic in today's world -- propelled him to become the first Republican Governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction.

While Rockefeller was chairman of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission in the '50s, he began an aggressive campaign to attract manufacturers to the state. The work ethic of the agrarian labor force in Arkansas was praised by all of the manufacturers Rockefeller captured during his time running economic development in the state. That praise of the Arkansas work ethic continues today.

"The Delta's rich heritage in agriculture provides a labor pool of reliable and hardworking individuals with Southern values," said Sue McGowan, Director of Economic Development & CEO of the Paragould Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Paragould, Ark., is part of the Delta with a thriving agriculture base. The community also ranks in the top 5 percent of industrial jobs by county population and continues an upward population increase of 18 percent per decade."

Today, at 13.6 percent, Arkansas has the highest percentage of manufacturing employment of any Southern state and most of that manufacturing workforce is in the state's Delta region. When Rockefeller began his campaign to recruit industry to the state almost 60 years ago, Arkansas had the lowest percentage of workers in manufacturing in the South and the highest percentage working in agriculture.

Sandwiched right between Memphis and Little Rock, the East Arkansas counties that comprise the Crossroads Coalition partnership have been intentionally and quietly building a war chest of resources, incentives, shovel-ready sites and business-friendly policies across the eight-county region. Just across the mighty Mississippi from downtown Memphis, East Arkansas is home to the most diverse network of transportation options anywhere in the American South. Those advantages caught the attention of one global company: Toyota.

"We were 'this close' to landing a major auto manufacturer seven years ago," said Heather Maxwell, Executive Director of the East Arkansas Crossroads Coalition. "The same determination and grit that has reshaped agribusiness in Arkansas flows into everything we do. East Arkansas leaders took the lessons learned from the Toyota loss and set out to create an environment in Arkansas capable of competing for jobs and industry on the global stage."

Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill and Mid-South Community College president Dr. Glen Fenter hosted Perry Yates, staff member for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at Mid-South Community College's Mid-America Transportation Technology Center in West Memphis, Ark."Toyota cited their concerns about the Arkansas Delta region's capacity to supply and maintain the facility with a high-quality labor force," said Dr. Glen Fenter, President of West Memphis-based Mid-South Community College. "We used the loss of that opportunity as a wake-up call, a road map of what we wanted our future to look like.

"Clearly, this region of Eastern Arkansas is much better prepared today to provide the workforce needs of any company and any size project. That will be the case in the future," Fenter said. In other words, Eastern Arkansas used the Toyota disappointment to ensure "our region will never let that happen again."

Dr. Fenter's plainspoken admission that the labor force in the Delta Region of Arkansas may not have been ready for Toyota back in 2007 is refreshing. The fact that Fenter and others throughout Arkansas have led a massive worker training buildup to address any competitive weakness is even more refreshing.

The Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium (ADTEC), a collaboration of community colleges in Eastern Arkansas, has been recognized as the nation's No. 1 workforce model by none other than the U.S. Department of Labor. Also, ADTEC was named as one of the top 10 workforce training models according to a study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One powerful exec that has found the Arkansas Delta to his liking

John Correnti, CEO of the proposed Big River Steel mill, speaks alongside Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and other state officials at the Capitol. Photo by Michael HibblenThere is one Southern entrepreneur in heavy manufacturing that has found great success deep in the heart of the Arkansas Delta. Former Nucor executive John Correnti is building another steel plant in the Delta. His latest is Big River Steel, a $1.1 billion German-backed project in the initial planning stages of building near Osceola, Ark.

The project is filled with irony. After a career as President and CEO (1991 to 1999) of Charlotte-based Nucor and a stint at trying to save Birmingham Steel, Correnti formed a new venture. That venture would be start-up steel maker SeverCorr, a Russian-backed venture.

In 2004, Correnti was searching for a location for his new start-up SeverCorr. He wanted to build the plant on a site on the Mississippi River in Mississippi County, Ark., the same county where he located a massive plant for Nucor-Yamato when he was president of Nucor in 1992. However, Arkansas officials passed on the deal apparently because it was a start-up project. So the SeverCorr plant ended up in Lowndes County (Columbus), Miss., and has been a great success.

Now here is the irony: Correnti's latest deal -- Big River Steel -- initially looked at a site near Columbus in West Point, Miss. The transaction was halted when Correnti could not get electric rates to his liking in West Point. So what did Correnti do? He simply moved the Big River Steel project back to where he wanted to place his SeverCorr project back in 2004. . .to Arkansas in the same county (Mississippi County) he placed the Nucor steel mill in 1992.

Other manufacturers in the Arkansas Delta in places like Paragould, Blytheville and Jonesboro include well-known companies such as Frito Lay, American Railcar, Nucor-Yamato, Nestle USA and Tenneco. Up and down the Arkansas Delta are highly successful manufacturing ventures and Arkansas, by far, is one of the best states in the South at retention of its existing industry. Many of the manufacturers in Arkansas' Delta region have been operating their plants for decades, or since "Winrock" helped recruit them.

The economy of Tennessee's Delta region

In 1935, David Cohn wrote that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. Pictured is the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. As previously written, David Cohn wrote in 1935 that the Mississippi Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." Well, if the Delta starts in Memphis, the River City is one of the region's most important assets.

Since this article, in part, is focusing on convincing you to reshore manufacturing capacity to the Mississippi River Delta -- the least expensive place outside of Mexico to operate your plant in North America -- and (2) promoting the fact the work ethic remains strong in most Delta towns, cities and counties, check out Memphis' manufacturing numbers of late.

Over the past two years, Memphis has seen about half of its new jobs come from the manufacturing sector. Taken from the Greater Memphis Chamber's website, "From hip replacements to engines, from air conditioners to solar panels, Memphis offers an attractive environment for manufacturing companies." That can be said for the entire Delta region.

Infrastructure features give Memphis a unique advantage in attracting manufacturing. For one, the International Port of Memphis is the second largest shallow draft inland port on the Mississippi River and fourth largest inland port in the U.S. The port features 68 water fronted facilities, 37 of which are terminals moving products such as steel, grains, coal and petroleum, among many other products.

One other advantage Memphis' port offers a manufacturer is the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park. The 3,500-acre tract, located directly on the Mississippi River, was developed in the 1950s by the city of Memphis and Shelby County, after an older industrial area -- President's Island -- became nearly fully developed.

Electrolux and Mitsubishi have recently built large facilities at Memphis' Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park and Nucor operates a steel plant on the site, which features four major available tracts totaling about 2,300 acres. The park is served by five major railroads, an attractive asset, and one that we have never heard of before. But even though Frank C. Pidgeon park is about 60 years old, it is just now coming into its own. Electrolux and Mitsubishi have recently built large facilities at the park and Nucor operates a steel plant on the site, which features four major available tracts totaling about 2,300 acres. The park is served by five major railroads, an attractive asset, and one that we have never heard of before.

But there's more to like in Memphis for manufacturers. Known as "America's Distribution Center" for its outstanding rail, water and Interstate access, Memphis is also known as "America's Aerotropolis." Home to FedEx's massive hub, the Memphis International Airport is the largest air cargo airport in North America and has been since 1992.

Another automotive assembly plant in Tennessee's future?

The Delta region of West Tennessee is obviously much more than Memphis. Tennessee's Delta region has some outstanding smaller markets for prospective manufacturers to check out. I have personally visited most if not all of them, including Dyersburg, Jackson, Covington, Ripley, Union City, Humboldt and Milan.

I am probably one of only a handful of people reading this who knows that the courthouse in tiny Trenton, Tenn. (Gibson County) is one of the most ornate in the South. In addition, the Gibson County courthouse is also painted in two shades of orange, or it was when I last visited it.

Over in Huntingdon, Tenn., the Norandal plant was established in 1979 when parent company Noranda purchased the Archer aluminum foil plant. In 1996, Norandal commissioned the world's first thin-gauge continuous caster at its Huntingdon plant. The facility is considered one of the most advanced rolled aluminum production facilities in North America and I have stood directly in front of one of the plant's furnaces in Huntingdon. I must say, that furnace, which was massive, was one of the hottest things I have ever seen or felt.

The automotive industry is one of the Tennessee Delta's strong points. West Tennessee's automotive cluster is not as large as Central Tennessee's automotive cluster, where GM and Nissan operate their assembly plants. But, if there is another automotive assembly plant in Tennessee's future -- in addition to GM and Nissan, Volkswagen operates an assembly facility in Chattanooga -- it might just land in the Delta region of Tennessee.

The Memphis Regional Megasite, located between Memphis and Jackson, Tenn., in rural Haywood County, is one of just two sites left of TVA's megasites, a program that the utility started several years back.

How successful has that megasite program been? TVA's megasite initiative has helped land VW in Chattanooga, Toyota in Tupelo and other large manufacturing projects, such as the aforementioned SeverCorr steel plant in Columbus, Miss.

Go to the Memphis Regional Megasite website and you will find this: "The Memphis Regional Megasite (MRM) has everything needed to be the home of the next major manufacturing development in the Southeastern U.S. A central location, massive size, solid infrastructure and a committed team of business and government leaders make this Tennessee site the future of manufacturing in the Southern Automotive Corridor." (See our site, SouthernAutoCorridor.com.)

Sounds like a sales pitch to an automaker to me. I met with Bill Hagerty, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community development a few months ago and I asked him, "Bill, you got room for another automaker in this state?" Bill laughed at the question. Of course, what would you expect him to say? I asked Larry Hayes, Bill's peer in Kentucky and Greg Canfield in Alabama -- Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee are the only states in the Southern Auto Corridor that are home to three or more major automotive assembly plants -- if they had room for another assembly plant and you can also guess their answers.

Moving north into Northwest Tennessee, you will find plenty of infrastructure suitable for any size manufacturing facility. Commercial navigation is provided by way of the river ports at Hickman, Ky., New Johnsonville, Tenn., and the $53 million Port of Cates Landing in Lake County, Tenn., is currently under construction.

In the Northwest Tennessee region there are about 100 existing properties with buildings suitable for manufacturing and warehousing. There are 35 greenfield sites within the region and 16 certified deal ready sites ranging from 20 to 550 acres. There are also nine spec buildings in the region from 20,000 to 100,000 square feet. With its proximity to the Memphis Regional Megasite, Northwest Tennessee is perfect as a supply chain base when and if a large user builds on that site in neighboring Haywood County.

Examining the economy of the South's Upper Mississippi River Delta region

Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky make up the upper Mississippi River Delta of the South. Key industries in the Missouri Delta remain agribusiness and transportation and logistics associated with the Mississippi River. But there exists a significant manufacturing cluster in this region, proving further that the South's fastest growing business sector has found great success throughout the Mississippi River Delta region.

In fact, manufacturing provides a significant number of jobs for much of Southeast Missouri's population and even in an area where agribusiness rules, manufacturing goods top the export value list here. Like the rest of the Delta, many of the largest manufacturing plants in the Missouri Delta are foreign-owned and they provide thousands of jobs to the region's residents. There are also many large domestic manufacturers here as well.

Like all places in the American South's Delta region, this area of Missouri lost much of its traditional industry base, such as textiles and apparel, years ago. But, not unlike the Delta as a whole, some of that has already come back as companies reshore from Asia, many times returning back to where they operated before they offshored.

Some of the notable nameplate manufacturers in Missouri's Delta region include Briggs & Stratton, Armstrong Wood Products, Caterpillar, American Railcar, Kyowa USA, Delta Companies, Newell Rubbermaid, Noranda Aluminum, Orgill, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble. Note that several of those companies have already been mentioned as having other major facilities in parts of the Delta.

There are no major markets such as Little Rock, New Orleans, Jackson or Memphis in the Missouri Delta region. But there are some small, but strong, cities of commerce in Cape Girardeau (Pop: 38,402); Poplar Bluff (18,708); Sikeston (16,288); Farmington (16,288); Jackson (13,938) and Kennett (10,939).

The Delta region of Western Kentucky

Kentucky's Delta is unique in that just a small portion of its western-most tip is bounded by the Mississippi River. The far western part of the region is called the Jackson Purchase area and it consists of eight counties, but there are 21 counties in Western Kentucky that are in the Delta Regional Authority's footprint.

The eight-county Purchase area is also unique in that it is bounded by the Mississippi River, Ohio River and the Tennessee River (now Kentucky Lake). This section of the Kentucky Delta also borders three states: Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri.

Not surprisingly, manufacturing and agribusiness dominate the economy of the Kentucky Delta. In fact, in Fulton and Hickman Counties, which are the two counties located where the three rivers meet, workers in manufacturing account for almost 30 percent of the labor force. The national average is 10 percent.

Kentucky's Delta region is not largely populated. Its most populated county is Christian County, where Fort Campbell is located. The fort is a large military installation that is home to the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Ops unit.

Christian County is also where one of the two remaining TVA megasites certified by McCallum Sweeney Consulting is located. Called the I-24 Megasite in Hopkinsville, the tract features 2,100 acres, CSX rail adjacent to the site and frontage on I-24. There is already a large automotive supplier cluster in Christian County, with Martinrea, Grupo Antolin, Metalsa, Propulsys, Douglas Autotech, T.RAD NA and Freudenberg Filtration operating large facilities in the county.

While Christian County is far and away the largest parts supplier cluster in the Delta region of Kentucky, the state's powerful automotive industry is branching out to other counties in Western Kentucky. It should be noted that Kentucky is the third largest state in the U.S. in automotive assembly, with 1,025,000 vehicles assembled in 2013.

In 2013, the Kentucky Delta landed Kayser Automotive Systems. The company, which makes modules for the automotive industry, invested $17 million in a plant in Fulton County that will house 121 workers. And in Paducah, Whitehall Industries, a manufacturer of aluminum parts used by automakers, announced a $12.9 million facility that will house 150 employees.

Like much of Kentucky, the state's Delta region is a hub for manufacturing. Manufacturers with large facilities in Kentucky's Delta region include Arkema, CC Metals & Alloys, Gerdau, Wacker Chemical, Briggs & Stratton, Pella, Pilgrim's Pride, Remington Arms, Accuride, Audubon Metals, Dana Corporation, Gibbs Die Casting, Century Aluminum, Jennmar, GE Aircraft Engine, International Automotive Components Group, Dippin' Dots, ViWinTech Window and Door, VMV Paducahbilt.

But the most interesting project announcement in 2013 in Kentucky's Delta region had to be Two Rivers Fisheries' $2.5 million investment to open an Asian carp processing facility in Wickliffe, Ky., near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The company purchases Asian carp from local fishermen and processes the fish, then blast-freezes the meat and ships it to Asia where there is a market for the product. Bi-products from the processing are also made into fertilizer. The plant can process up to 70,000 pounds of Asian carp each week.

What's interesting about the project is that not only has Two Rivers Fisheries found a market for the unwanted -- by Americans, anyway -- resource, removing the Asian carp will make both rivers healthier in that the fish has multiplied so quickly that it is a major risk to other species.

The Delta of Illinois

Although Illinois is not in SB&D's coverage area, we are including its Southern region here because 16 of the state's southernmost counties are in the Delta Regional Authority's footprint. Plus, if there ever was a place outside the South that resembles the South, this is it.

However, unlike much of the Delta, Southern Illinois is quite hilly and has many forested areas. In fact, the geography of much of this region is not suitable for development with rock outcroppings and steep ridges not seen but in a few places in the Mississippi River Delta.

Agriculture dominates land use in Southern Illinois, with 65 percent of the region's total area devoted to farming. Unlike farming areas in the central part of the state that feature flat, rowed farms, there are a variety of crops and specialty crops grown in this region, including grains, orchards and vineyards. Beef and other livestock are also strong agribusiness components in the region.

The Delta region of Illinois is also unlike many parts of the Mississippi River Delta in that manufacturing is not as strong as what you see in the Delta regions of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. The region has had some success in the metals sector with Penn Aluminum International in Jackson County, home of Southern Illinois University. Total Titanium and G&S Foundry operate significant plants in Randolph County and Aisin Manufacturing and Aisin Light Metals have large operations in Williamson County.

Manufacturing highlights in other Southern Illinois counties include a significant boat-manufacturing cluster in Franklin County. Crownline Boats and Bombardier of America together have a workforce of nearly 1,000.

Conclusion

The Mississippi River Delta region of the American South is indeed the most Southern place on Earth. The National Park Service describes the Delta as "Much of what is profoundly American -- what people love about America -- has come from the Delta, which if often called 'the cradle of American culture.' " The connection between the Delta and the National Park Service, in part, was created when President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, creating the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. That area is contained in the heart of the Delta, from Vicksburg to Memphis.

Everyone knows the Delta is the birthplace of blues music and rock 'n roll. Mose Allison, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, they all came out of the Delta. And no one will ever know if Tommy Johnson actually sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastering the guitar.

Writers William Faulkner, Shelby Foote, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Harper Lee were born in the Delta. The Civil Rights movement was born in the Delta. The place is simply hip-deep in cultural assets and those assets are an important part of the area's economic development strategy.

But the greatest asset in the Mississippi River Delta may still be somewhat untapped. Its role in the South and America's manufacturing future may be its most important gig of all time. The Delta region is experiencing a manufacturing renaissance not seen in its history.

From the mouth of the Mississippi River to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, this place that we call the Delta is rocking like never before. And if the true definition of economic development is to take the jobs where they are needed the most, the Mississippi River Delta will not only be known as the most Southern place on Earth, it will be the South's manufacturing mecca.


  
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