May 10, 2014 11:02:03 PM
For nearly a year, James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, has crisscrossed the United States exploring the dynamics and inner workings of small towns fighting back against unique challenges.
He travels via his personal airplane with his wife, Deborah, also a correspondent for The Atlantic. They target places not near interstates. Since the summer of 2013, they have visited roughly 10 communities and written about them for a series called American Futures in the national magazine.
Spots like Greenville, S.C., which lost most of its textile industries but now boasts BMW and Michelin plants, and Eastport, Maine, a town of 1,300 slowly rebounding since the sardine-canning industry evaporated, have been featured.
Now, so will Columbus.
Fallows and his wife recently spent eight days -- four in April, four in May -- in the Golden Triangle working on an American Futures piece.
In an interview with The Dispatch on Friday, Fallows was asked what led him to want to explore the area. An inspiring story, he said.
"One of the poorest parts of the country, with one of the lowest ranked educational systems, with obvious loss of old industries, and this particular part (of the state) seems to be trying to deal with that in a lot of ways other places haven't," he said. "That's the story here."
Fallows, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, has published 10 books and in 1983 was awarded the National Book Award.
In her reporting, Deborah Fallows focuses on cutting-edge public high schools. The couple initially came to Columbus in May to report on the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. After spending some time in the area, though, James Fallows sensed a bigger story, one that fit in with his project's overall theme of places "figuring out how to deal with economic, demographic, cultural challenges."
The Golden Triangle has experienced plant closures. In 2007, the Sara Lee Corp. closed the old Bryan Foods plant in West Point and hundreds were left without jobs. More recently, Omnova Solutions Inc., which manufactured wall covering at a 700,000 square foot facility in East Columbus, closed its doors.
In the wake of those closures and others, however, the area has attracted big industries.
In 2003, American Eurocopter, which builds helicopters, constructed a Lowndes County facility that employs 125 people. In 2005, Severstal, a massive steel mill, came to the county. In 2007, PACCAR, which manufactures diesel engines, came to the area and employs 500 people. A Yokohama tire plant is currently being built in Clay County and when it is at full-capacity in 2023, it is slated employ 2,000 people.
Those industries and others that have opened or expanded in the past decade represent $4.5 billion worth of investment in the Golden Triangle.
With that contrast -- openings and closings, layoffs and hirings -- Fallows saw a unique story.
To wrap their arms around the economic reinvention, Fallows and his wife sat down with the locals you would expect. There was time spent with Joe Max Higgins, the CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK. There was a lunch visit with Dr. Raj Shaunak, vice president of workforce & community services at East Mississippi Community College. There was a dinner with Dr. Thomas Easterling, an English instructor at MSMS. And many meetings with the leadership of local industries and factory tours.
James Fallows said that if pressed on why new industries have located in the area, he would point to local leadership. In other communities he has visited and reported on, there seems to be "one or two forceful people who put together a network and that has an effect," he said.
He also credited EMCC.
"The question is, if we've got all these factories in the middle of Mississippi, who is going to work there?" he said. "Well, that is exactly the sort of question EMCC is set up to answer."
While they were in Columbus, the couple also chatted with dozens and dozens of people they bumped into -- Air Force pilots and pharmacists enjoying the nightlife at The Princess Theater, men and women at a fish fry at the Lowndes County airport, steel mill workers at Severstal, strangers getting off the elevator at the Fairfield Inn and Suites, where they stayed.
The take away, they said, was a community not trying to hide from negatives, but confronting them and moving forward.
"People seem to be trying really hard here," Deborah Fallows said. "And understanding that they are coming from a difficult place -- the state of Mississippi -- and are wanting to work to make it all better. I hear that...from every single place that we have gone."
James Fallows, who lived in Jackson as a child while his father was stationed at a Navy hospital there in the 1950s, acknowledged the state's problems, from unemployment to poverty to obesity rates. But the focus, he said, is on the positives.
"It would be really, really easy to travel around Mississippi and criticize," he said. "Once you already know that, what are the other things worth noticing?"
The Fallows live in Washington, D.C.
They are updating The Atlantic website throughout their travels. To view the most recent posts visit theatlantic.com/james-fallows. The print edition of Fallows' story on the Golden Triangle will appear in The Atlantic in coming months.
Marketplace, a radio program produced by American Public Media that focuses on business, is also doing a story on the Golden Triangle. That story is expected to broadcast later this week.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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