Serious Players in the Auto Industry Discover Mississippi's Delta

By Mike Randle

If you're in the automotive business, then you know there's one place in the U.S. where that industry is growing and one place only. It's the Southern Automotive Corridor. In fact, of all industries expanding or relocating to the South over the last two years, the automotive industry has almost doubled the number of projects announced by the second place industry. Automotive suppliers make up the majority of those projects.

In 2003, 85 automotive parts suppliers with significant OEM contracts either expanded or located new operations in the Southern Auto Corridor (SAC). Between Jan. 1, 2004 and Nov. 30, 2004, 73 suppliers with significant OEM contracts either expanded or located new operations in the SAC. In both years there were many smaller supplier expansions and new locations that did not make it on the radar screen.

One trend that has certainly emerged regarding automotive parts suppliers and their quest to move southward is that the majority select rural locations for their operations. Of those 158 significant parts supplier locations or expansions made over the last 23 months, 94 landed in a rural South county or town.

If suppliers love rural locations then naturally they would adore the Delta region of Mississippi. After all, the Mississippi Delta and the word "rural" have been inseparable in the good times and the bad for more than 100 years. While the South's Mississippi River Delta regions are not the most rural in the South, perception makes them just that. Therefore, if auto suppliers prefer rural locations, then Mississippi's Delta can claim it was rural when rural wasn't cool for the automotive industry.

Shortly after Nissan announced it would build a large assembly plant in Canton, Miss., in 1999, no less than 10 large automotive suppliers have set up shop in Mississippi's Delta region. And not all of them supply Nissan.

Those suppliers have chosen Vicksburg, Greenwood, Greenville and Cleveland and other Delta communities in Mississippi. The suppliers are from Japan, France and Michigan, among other places. In short, the world's automotive industry has discovered the Delta.

One of those is Textron Fastening Systems. The company went from zero workers and an empty building in February of this year to almost full production with over 400 workers in less than nine months. Textron Fastening Systems CEO Rick Clayton said, "We have found in the Delta talent and we have nothing but accolades for the people we have found. The Delta economy is rebounding and you have to look no further than this facility (located in Greenville) to see that. We're proud to be in the Mississippi Delta."

Other automotive suppliers such as Faurecia, SportRack Automotive, Visteon, Casco, Calsonic, Brown Corp. and Yorozu have found Mississippi's Delta to their liking as well and they've all landed in the region in the last three years. Except for central Alabama, there may not be a hotter multi-county rural region in any state in the Southern Auto Corridor over the last several years than the Mississippi Delta. And equally as interesting, on the other side of the Mississippi River you will find the Arkansas Delta. They, too, have never seen as many jobs and investments coming from the automotive industry than what has occurred in the last couple of years.

Vicksburg has certainly been one of the Mississippi Delta communities to benefit from the automotive industry recently. Calsonic and Yorozu are two Tier 1 suppliers to locate in Vicksburg at the impressive 1,296-acre Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex. They won't be the last. "We're seeing other automotive prospects coming in and the ones we have are growing," said Jimmy Heidel, Executive Director of the Vicksburg/Warren County Economic Development Foundation. Yorozu, for example, announced almost three years ago it would employ 200 workers. Today Yorozu employs about 320 in Warren County.

While the automotive industry is the Delta's immediate future merely because the entire South is fast becoming North America's "auto manufacturing's Mecca," there's much more to the region than what that industry is providing in terms of jobs and investment.

One of the markets benefiting from the Mississippi Delta discovery is Greenwood, Miss. In the three rural Mississippi counties where Greenwood is the economic center (Carroll, Leflore and Greenwood), there have been five new industrial or distribution facilities recruited over the last year-and-a-half. In addition, a minority-owned call center has opened in the area and a new business incubator is about to open as well. As a result, unemployment rates are currently at a 30-year low in the Greenwood area.

According to one economic developer, one of the reasons the Delta has seen so much activity of late is because the region was hit so hard in 2001 and 2002. "We had a tremendous number of plant closings in the Delta," said Robert Ingram, Executive Director of the Greenwood/Leflore/Carroll EDF. "What that left us with was a large and available work force, one that was trained, experienced and willing to get back to work. The closures also put some very good buildings back on the market. Because we had the product available, we are well on our way to rebuilding," Ingram said.

The region is seeing very strong activity by its existing industries as well. Two of the major employers in the region, Viking Range in Greenwood and Baxter Healthcare in Cleveland have committed to major expansions and capital investments that will add jobs. Other expansions are happening in the region as well. And fortunately for the Delta, there has been very little plant mortality over the last 12 months.

In the northern portion of the region, which stretches all the way to the Memphis metro area, two counties in north Mississippi continue their explosive growth, not only in manufacturing, but in distribution, services and healthcare. Just south of there, the Tunica gaming market with its massive casinos is stronger than ever. The growing gaming industry in and around Tunica will have a huge impact on the rest of the region as it continues its amazing development.

Companies, both large and small, are realizing the great quality of life inherent in the Delta. Governments and industry in the area are making sure the high quality of life will remain there for many years to come by making large investments in downtown areas, enhancing infrastructure such as roads and working to fully develop tourism opportunities. After all, the Delta is the birthplace of the Blues.

Some examples include the small town of Drew, Miss. There the entire downtown area is being rehabbed. The tiny town of Marks has no empty downtown stores. The Alluvian Hotel, built by Viking Range in Greenwood, is transforming the "Cotton Capital of the World." In Indianola, there are huge strides being made in the development of the B.B. King Museum and Clarksdale continues to capitalize on its very unique music-related investments.

So, how has the Mississippi Delta, long known as a economically-challenged region, turn itself around in such a short period of time? Well, the first thing that must be mentioned is the automotive industry. That industry is irreversible in the South now and it's likely all of those plants that have located in the Delta in the last three or four years will remain operating for many years to come. And there will be more new suppliers to locate in the Delta every year for years to come.

Yet, at the base of all of that is the question, "Why the Delta?" Economic development leaders believe a new-found commitment to work force training is at the center of the region's recent success. "The Mississippi Delta puts a tremendous emphasis on work force training," said Frank Howell, development director for the Mississippi Delta Developers Association. "Our five regional community colleges have made a commitment to the needs of the automotive industry today and into the future. The Center for Advanced Vehicular Studies at Mississippi State University is a major asset to our region. And our labor force has proven experience in automotive and heavy manufacturing."

Howell's statements are backed up by fact. While the region, not unlike the majority of rural regions in the South, was hit hard in recent years by manufacturers bailing out to Mexico, India and China, the last year has been nothing less than remarkable in the Delta. Unemployment in the Delta region of Mississippi is currently at its lowest level in five years. More new manufacturing jobs and investments have been won in the Delta in the first nine months of this year than in all of 2002 and 2003. Additionally, the Delta has seen well over $100 million in capital investment since 2004 began and about 1,200 jobs have been created, more than in 2002 and 2003 combined.