April 24, 2013 11:01:07 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
WEST POINT -- Slowly, the land is reclaiming what once was a proud, family-owned industry in West Point. What the weeds and ant hills have not taken, the wrecking ball and Mother Nature will eventually destroy. Six years have passed since the Sara Lee Corp., closed the old Bryan Foods plant, but the 70-acre site, surrounded by chain-link fencing and "No Trespassing" signs, continues to sit, a hulking behemoth in a town where no reminder of the plant's presence -- or its absence -- is needed.
In a city desperate for an economic star to wish upon, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant's mention this week of an automotive supplier considering West Point provided just the scintilla needed to set the town ablaze with speculation and good old-fashioned gossip. Mostly though, it offered hope. As Bryant prepares to call a special session of the Legislature, possibly as soon as next week, residents are less interested in the incentives package he may offer the company and more interested in the nitty-gritty details: How many jobs, at what salary and when?
In a job-starved community, where February unemployment figures stagnated at 19.3 percent -- second highest in the state only to Tunica County, with 20.1 percent -- that's the real question. There are no guarantees the industry will choose West Point, and local officials are being careful to make sure no one counts their paychecks before the ink is dry.
The negotiations are so hush-hush that one West Point politico, who declined to be named, stopped on Commerce Street Tuesday to re-emphasize the delicate nature of economic development wheeling and dealing. Discretion and diplomacy are not only standard operating procedure, they are the first linchpin of trust a prospective industry builds with a community.
In layman's parlance: The company calls the shots. And when they're ready for you to know, you'll know.
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That didn't stop residents from speculating Tuesday afternoon about what the future could hold if a major industry was to once again make West Point its home.
Clay County has languished in an economic torpor since March 2007, when Illinios-based Sara Lee Corp. closed its meat processing plant, leaving 1,200-plus people -- roughly 10 percent of the city's population -- unemployed.
Local barbers Frankie Doss Jr. and Damione Randle, who work at Gibson's Hair Styles and Cuts on Main Street, had friends and family members who were among those who lost their jobs.
Some found employment with Navistar, only to be laid off in 2009 when the loss of a major military contract prompted the company to slash 275 positions. Others went to Blazon Tube, which ceased production April 1.
"This whole town's looking for a job," Randle said, slouching in his barber's chair, waiting for his next customer. "All we need is some jobs."
Doss, 32, remembers a time when it seemed like every star in the night sky was placed just for West Point's benefit. No one could imagine the city without Sara Lee. Generation after generation had worked there, many back before 1968, when it was Bryan Foods. The company, founded when West Point resident J.C. Bryan Sr. opened a meat market in 1909, grew to a full-scale meat production plant in 1936, and for many a person, Bryan, and later Sara Lee, kept food on their tables.
As Doss fussed over local resident Ollie Conaway, snipping and shaving with the perfectionism of an artist, he reminisced about West Point's glory days.
"When Bryan Foods was here, money was flying back then," Doss said, waving his scissors for emphasis. "Wasn't nobody broke. Only reason you didn't make money was if you didn't want to. Bryan was the bread and butter of West Point."
Now, he said, he knows people who make the 130-mile round trip to Blue Springs every day to work at the Toyota plant. People shouldn't have to do that, he said. People shouldn't have to leave home and drive 50 and 60 miles to work, spending half their paychecks on gas and car repairs.
But West Point doesn't offer much anymore, Conaway said. A handful of minimum wage jobs. Who can feed a family and keep diapers and shoes on the babies with minimum wage?
"A big job, a nice-sized company, that would do us wonders," Doss said, nodding at Randle's assertion that West Point is becoming a retirement community -- fine for older people but with little to entice young people to stay.
"At this point, West Point is a retirement town," Doss agreed. "Ain't nothin' else to do but sit on your porch and sip lemonade and wait for God to come back."
But Doss has the job of his dreams, doing exactly what he always intended to do. He jokes that his father made him a barber by cutting such wide trenches in his hair that as soon as he could hold the clippers, he asserted that he would cut his own. Now, he is licensed, not like the "bootleggers" around town who undercut him by offering $7 haircuts but, he said, practice questionable hygiene and skill.
A sign on the mirror above his station is a salient reminder that no matter how much he loves what he does, it is not a hobby.
In small, black letters, inked with a marker on plain white paper, he has written: "I work for pay and not for fun, I want my pay when my work is done."
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Down on Commerce Street, talk was a little more tempered, a bit more cautious. Three women sat at a table, knitting companionably at Yarns and More, where they meet once a week to socialize and work on individual projects.
All three had husbands who had retired from Bryan Foods before the plant closed. They have heard the talk of a new industry eying West Point, and they agree that if it happens, it will be good for the community.
Mary Ellis, a West Point native, echoed the sentiments of Doss and Randle, saying young people need more opportunities. Her own children moved to Nashville and New Mexico, partially in search of work.
"The thing that's sad is they get out of high school or college and they (move) away," Ellis said. "It would be nice for them to have something here to stay for."
Right now, what West Point has in abundance are empty storefronts and houses for sale that no one is buying.
And so, talk turns once more to the prospect of the rumored company that might bring an untold number of jobs.
"We're really excited about it and looking forward to it," shop owner Lynne Tubb said. "We're ready for it."
Across the street, shoppers strolled past the Ritz Theater and Conference Center, where Joe Higgins, then CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, held an elaborate "signing party" in April 2012 as West Point and Clay County joined the Link in what would eventually become a tri-county economic development coalition, with Oktibbeha County and Starkville making up the final organizational arm.
At the event, which Clay County District 2 Supervisor Luke Lummus called "a historical moment" and West Point Growth Alliance Board President Jackie Edwards called one of the most exciting days in her 66 years, local officials signed a contract promising to pay the Link $350,000 annually to have Higgins ply his industrial recruitment magic on their behalf.
But even then Higgins cautioned that there were no guarantees. Though he believed West Point was well-positioned to attract a $100 million-plus deal, it wasn't going to be an easy sell.
"We'll do it the only way we know," Higgins said that day to the standing-room only crowd. "We're going to go after it hard; we're going to go after it fast; we're going to find out what we do well; we're going to exploit it."
Higgins declined Monday to discuss any possible plans on the table, saying he would comment when, and if, Gov. Bryant calls a special session.
But still, a city can dream, and in West Point Tuesday afternoon, a handful of people were looking beyond the vacant buildings, beyond the weed-strewn lots, beyond the past and into the future.
"What if?" they asked. "What if?"
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.