April 30, 2013 9:40:55 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
After the ink was dry on the contract officials from Mississippi and Yokohama Rubber Company signed Monday, Golden Triangle Regional Development Link CEO Joe Max Higgins wasted no time letting a packed house at the Ritz Theater and Conference Center know what needed to happen during construction of the tire manufacturer's newest plant.
"Our job is just starting. We've given (Yokohama) our word, our bond, and we've shaken their hand. We've told them we're going to make sure they're successful in West Point and Clay County, Mississippi," Higgins said. "For city and county leaders, we've got roads to build, sewers to install, a whole host of infrastructure. (Tennessee Valley Authority) and 4-County (Electric), get the trucks ready. It's time to start."
Prior to Higgins' call to action, a host of local and state officials rallied the audience in celebration of what Mayor Scott Ross called a "red letter day in the history of West Point, perhaps unequaled in our history."
The Mississippi House and Senate approved a $130 million incentive package Friday during a special session that drew the global tire manufacturer to the Magnolia State. Once the first portion of the plant is built in 2015 at the Prairie Belt Powersite, the company plans to create at least 500 jobs for bus and truck tire manufacturing. In all, the four-phase project is expected to create at least 2,000 jobs once construction on the entire plant is complete in 2023.
Mississippi leaders appearing at the ceremony included Gov. Phil Bryant, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn. Also present were YRC President Hikomitsu Noji, Yokohama Rubber Co., CEO Yashushi Tanaka and YRC director of product planning Andrew Briggs among several other company representatives.
Noji said the occasion was 'historic' for Yokohama.
"As the U.S. economy continues to recover, the commercial tire industry is forecast to be on the upswing. We cannot be any prouder to have chosen the great state of Mississippi to join us," Noji said. "Today affirms our commitment to the North American market and to our customers that have given us their confidence over the decades. We are very excited at the prospect at having an even stronger relationship and even deeper community involvement, which can only result in the highest degree of success."
'I always knew we could do this'
Bryant noted Yokohama's history and reputation while commending the work of the Mississippi Development Authority, the Link, state legislators and congressmen among other entities for their collaboration to lure the manufacturer to Mississippi.
"I always knew we could do this. There were some challenging times because there was a lot of tough competition out there. There were many states that fought hard for this and wanted this great factory," Bryant said. "This is a wonderful worldwide company that's 90 years old (with) 17,000 employees, (and makes) about $4.5 billion a year. Even at that, this commitment was tremendous challenges for Yokohama, so it was up to us to give them the opportunity, the information, the resources they needed to be able to make this tough and difficult decision for their company. There's one thing I promised (Yokohama representatives): Mississippi will not let you down."
Bryant also mentioned the work of MDA Executive Director Brent Christensen and Higgins' collaboration on finalizing the incentive package that would involve a $300 million investment from Yokohama to build the first portion of the plant and $900 million more for the remainder of the project.
"I can tell you that Joe Max is a guy that is as dedicated to the success of this region as anybody I know," Bryant said. "I know Brent works hard, but when you put he and Joe Max together, all I had to do was get out of the way because they were unstoppable forces together."
A silver lining
Alongside Higgins representing the Link was chairman Gordon Flowers, a West Point native and Columbus attorney. Flowers gave a nod to his Clay County roots and said the area's resiliency was demonstrated after the closure of the Sara Lee and Bryan Foods plants was a tribute to its people.
"Two thousand jobs were lost in a very short period of time. It was a dark economic cloud, like a pall over this area in Clay County and in broader terms," Flowers said. "What I think we've received here with Yokohama is a silver lining of that dark cloud. This wonderful company has made its commitment to this area, and we're so thankful that they are here."
Ross echoed Flowers, adding the agreement the city and county signed with the Link last year was the driving force behind this development. Shortly after the Bryan plant closed, Ross said, a community meeting was held for residents to come together and "collectively grieve over the loss" of the industries and determine what to do next.
"That day, we brought together all of our regional partners: Mississippi State University, East Mississippi Community College, 4-County (Electric). All the folks we knew could make a difference came together that day. Our community did not put its head down. We took a gut punch, but we fought back," Ross said. "We started that day working to bring a branch of East Mississippi Community College to West Point and did so. They made a commitment that they would help retrain these hundreds of workers."
Harper also recognized MSU, noting that faculty and students conducted research to help identify workforce availability in the region and state.
"They step up every time they're called upon to provide federal research and development and assistance," Harper said. "This is not only good for Clay County and this city but it's great for the entire state of Mississippi. We've got great days ahead. We're going to look back on today and say this really started it."
Clay County supervisor Shelton Deanes noted Monday's ceremony as the first "shovel in the dirt."
"To our new partners and friends: We thank you all for looking our way," Deanes said. "This was a very important move, not just to Clay County, but this was important to the whole state of Mississippi being able to stand together as one and make a vote for something that is going to help not just this region, but all the regions that are close around."
Bryant noted a group of 22 students from Southside and Churchill elementary schools who were perched in the balcony waving hand-crafted signs welcoming Yokohama to the city.
"Economic development is a team sport in the state of Mississippi and we could not do it without all those who have been a part of this, but particularly to our newfound friends, our partnerships that will last, we hope, for generations," Bryant said. "I can see a day that the young children that are in these galleries this morning holding these signs will have an opportunity for a job and they will go to work at Yokohama Tire Company. Generations hence will look back at this particular day when we were there when we said 'We have made it.'"
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.