September 24, 2013 10:05:00 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
The excitement in the air at Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi's ground-breaking ceremony in Clay County was almost palpable Monday morning as executives, lawmakers and Clay County residents gathered on the hundreds of acres of farm land that will soon house a booming tire manufacturer.
Governor Phil Bryant said West Point would one day be a "shining city on the hill." Yokohama president Hikomitsu Noji compared the merging of the Japanese industry and the Mississippi work force to a marriage with a happy honeymoon in the near future and a "baby" -- the facility -- born 45 months later.
The excitement was obvious on the faces of lawmakers and executives, but could not compare to the emotions that radiated from Clay County residents: excitement and dreams filled with hope.
"It's like it's been raining here for several years and we finally have a rainbow to appear," said West Point native Ladonna Halverson. "Yokohama is our rainbow."
The $1.2 billion plant will sit on 115 acres and create 2,000 local job when all phases are completed in 2023. Clay County currently has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 19 percent.
Roosevelt Cox is retired but said seeing a plant like Yokohama open in Clay County is a sign of hope for future generations.
"I think it will be a big opportunity for people to get jobs in West Point," Cox said. "Since (Sara Lee) closed down, there's nothing for people to do. Myself, personally, I'm retired but I'm looking forward to the young people having something to do and have a better life than they have now."
Edward Houston echoed Cox's sentiments and said with new job opportunities, younger generations will have a chance to dream of a new way of life, a dream that was almost impossible without the new plant.
"We're trying to get a new way of life," Houston said. "This is an opportunity for people in the community. We have the highest unemployment rate here in Clay County and this is an opportunity that we can move forward, that they can get their dreams and go and do what they need to do in life."
The impact the five-million square foot plant will have on future generations seemed to be at the forefront of everyone's mind Monday.
Jermaine Taylor, principal at West Point Middle School, says all too often he sees children who are negatively impacted when their parents are unemployed. By hopefully boosting the local employment rate, Taylor said he hopes children's grades will be affected as well.
"Financial stability at home interprets into better success in school," Taylor said. "If they're seeing mom being successful and less stress on mom, it's less stress on the child."
Noting the loss of the Sara Lee plant in 2007, Taylor said he saw a rise in people leaving the community to find jobs. By bringing back industry, Taylor said he hopes Clay County will keep people who may be thinking of leaving.
"When we lost some industry here, we saw a lot of families move away to find work, attendance went down, our enrollment went down. It's going to mean a lot for us. Our future generations will have some place to turn to for employment. It's going to be hope for our children coming through that they're going to have a place of employment and be able to stay in the area and not have to move off to find work."
Gene Perry was standing back from the crowd Monday and seemed to be taking in the scene, a toothpick in his mouth, hands on his hips.
"It's really a big push for the county and all of the surrounding counties," he said. "It's going to be really helpful to our young people and for generations to come and I think it's one of the best things that could have ever happened to Clay County, Lowndes County, Oktibbeha and all of the surrounding counties. It's going to be a really big boost."
West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson agreed and said not only would West Point be positively impacted, but surrounding counties would be as well.
"Clay County/West Point cannot fill 2,000 jobs so there will be plenty of jobs to go around," Robinson said. "There will be people from Lowndes County, Oktibbeha County, Monroe County, the surrounding areas. It's going to take that to furnish 2,000 jobs to Yokohama and we pledged to do that. Locally, it's just unbelievable. With the construction workers that will be coming in during the construction phase, West Point will benefit from the fact that they'll be spending their money in West Point and we'll have sales tax revenue increasing."
Luann Little said the creation of 2,000 jobs will mean so much to her beloved hometown.
"It's amazing. It really is," Little said. "West Point needs jobs so bad, so bad."
Little owns land adjacent to the Yokohama property and said seeing the new plant built there would have meant so much to her late father. "Daddy loved his God, his family and Clay County. He'd be all for this."
Jackie Edwards is on the executive board at the Golden Triangle Development Link and is a lifelong Clay County resident. Edwards said she has been involved in the process since Clay County first approached Link CEO Joe Max Higgins and asked him to help bring industry to their area.
"We think this is the greatest thing that has happened," Edwards said. "I still can't believe it's real. I wake up at night thinking, 'when I wake up it's all going to be a dream.' It's that big of a deal for this area."
She also noted the loss of Sara Lee, but said the people of West Point have weathered the storm.
"We've been through the times when (Sara Lee) closed and we didn't close up and die. We stayed viable, we got to looking for options and this is going to save our town.
"It's literally going to save our town."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.