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Planning Means Business

by Fred D. Baldwin

Most of Lee County, Mississippi, looks rural. Cattle graze on level pastures, and pine trees grow on rolling woodlots. Despite a cluster of new motels and restaurants on the edges of Tupelo, the county seat, there's little to suggest that Lee County has the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the state, having in 1996 edged past its nearest competitor, a county with three times its population.

Lee County's factories, assembly plants, and shipping depots aren't hidden, but they are dispersed. That's by design. Long before strategic thinking had become a buzzword, the leadership of Lee County was doing it. "This is a 50-year-old policy," says Harry A. Martin, president of the Community Development Foundation (CDF) in Tupelo. "It's a simple thing. We disperse the job centers to the rural areas to let the jobs come to the people instead of making the people go to the jobs."

It does sound simple. Nevertheless, many communities have done just the opposite, letting industry concentrate in one or two locations. The movement of rural residents to towns and cities, only to be followed within a generation by another movement out to sprawling suburbs, has been a demographic trend for decades. But, as has been observed, "Trend isn't destiny." Lee County leadership has been proving that true for a full half-century.

What became known as the "Tupelo Plan" was launched in 1946 when local merchants raised $40,000 (a huge amount, worth over $300,000 in 1997 dollars) to promote the community. George McLean, editor and publisher of the Tupelo Daily Journal, contracted with True D. Morse, later an undersecretary of agriculture during the Eisenhower administration, for a plan covering all of Lee County and parts of adjoining ones. The resulting strategy stressed economic development by attracting industry and—this was rare, if not unique—emphasized "the mutual interest of town and country."

A time line published by the CDF shows remarkable faithfulness to the original vision. The time line celebrates the acquisition of major industries (including 17 Fortune 500 companies, especially, beginning in 1953, a number of major furniture manufacturers). But it also gives substantial space to milestones like tree plantings, school construction, and openings of Head Start centers (under CDF auspices).

The strategy has worked. By the early 1960s, Lee County's industry payrolls exceeded agricultural income—one of the first counties in the state for which this was true. At the beginning of 1997, Lee County was third in the state in total employment, with 53,000 jobs—18,440 (more than one-third of them) in manufacturing. During periods when most of the country has been losing manufacturing jobs, Tupelo has been gaining them.

You can learn a lot from what people brag about. The CDF's promotional literature naturally mentions that Tupelo has been designated twice (in 1967 and 1989) as an "All-America City" by the National Civic League. But it also gives prominence to profiles of Lee County's smaller communities—places like Baldwyn (population about 3,300), Saltillo (about 2,000), and Guntown (about 800).

Thinking Regionally

Martin says that the Tupelo Plan envisioned building a larger community "both vertically and horizontally"—that is, with deliberate attention to thinking regionally. "Sometimes," he continues, "you have a Tupelo that grows, but those small communities dry up and blow away. We've bought an insurance policy against that. Saltillo is just a little town, but it probably issued more housing permits this year than Tupelo."

And why is that important? "We're not having to tear down infrastructure and abandon it," Martin replies. "That's a waste of resources. It's also been our philosophy that by keeping that local culture together—the family and the grandparents—we'll build family values. Left in its original environment, the family unit will be stronger and the work ethic will be higher, which will enhance our ability to market."

In 1971, for example, CDF opened Turner Industrial Park. Most of Lee County's existing industrial parks (it now has nine) were on the southern side of Tupelo. Turner was built to the north of Tupelo, within the boundaries of Saltillo. Originally 500 acres, Turner eventually expanded to 923 acres, with the help of Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grants for access roads and water and sewer service.

Turner is served by a railroad spur and is accessible from major highways and the Tupelo Regional Airport. The park currently has ten manufacturing tenants employing a total of roughly 1,600 workers. Its presence increases the size of the geographic area that constitutes the Tupelo-Lee primary labor market. Approximately 230 acres remain for additional tenants.

"No one was provincial," says Glenn L. McCullough Jr., Tupelo mayor (and former Mississippi state ARC director). "The city didn't say, "We've got to have it in Tupelo." The county just looked for the best location. Turner Industrial Park is a model for one of America's best economic development organizations working with county elected leaders, who in turn work in close partnership with the city and private leadership."

Most of the firms in Turner either are in the furniture industry or provide materials and technology used in furniture manufacture. They range in size from Action Industries, Inc., which makes upholstered motion furniture (reclining sofas, for example) and which has approximately 800 employees, to small firms like Precision Blades, whose 12 employees produce blades for cutting foam, wood, and metal, and Mid-South Technologies, whose 10 employees produce custom-made machinery. The park's first tenant, FMC Corporation, which manufactures conveyor components, remains there still and has grown to 380 employees, making it the second-largest firm in the park.

Workforce is Key to Success

A visit to Turner dispels any notion that furniture manufacturing in the Tupelo-Lee area survives on low-cost, unskilled labor. On factory floors, many workers do routine sewing or assembly, but a high percentage operate computer-assisted machinery. Action Industries, for example, makes extensive use of computer technology to minimize waste in time and material. Kevin Wilkins, Action's Saltillo plant manager, comments that the CDF strategy of dispersing resources makes both business and social sense.

"We have four plants within a 25-to-30-mile radius of each other," Wilkins says. "It's better for us than one enormous operation. We've got a good workforce here, and that's the main key to our success. A lot of our people are local—from small towns north of here, Baldwyn and Guntown. When we built this plant in 1987, Stone Container [Corporation, a manufacturer of corrugated cartons] was the only thing in the park. It was farmland and cow pasture. Now Saltillo is growing by leaps and bounds."

A 1994 Wall Street Journal article on Tupelo comments that "in a corner of the U.S. where labor's main selling point is its low cost and where racial conflict has left deep scars, Tupelo spends heavily to build a skilled workforce and acts quickly to address minority grievances." The article goes on to document that conclusion. It adds that the CDF targets mid-sized and smaller businesses and that it invests heavily in education and training.

The most recent employer to locate in Turner Industrial Park is Omega Motion, a firm that makes metal parts (such as glider mechanisms) for motion furniture. A start-up firm, Omega began shipping product this spring, less than a year after its incorporation in 1996. That fast start (which involved a $10 million investment by Omega) was possible in part because the CDF secured a grant from ARC to expedite preparing a suitable site. Omega's president, Stephen Lake, calls CDF "the best community development foundation in the world . . . and I've run plants from Texas to Michigan."

"We had people who wanted us to go somewhere else," he says. "But when we looked around and saw what was available between the local government, the county, the state, and the federal partners, it was kind of like, as the kids say, 'Duh!' There's only one place to build this plant."

Lake was also impressed by the CDF's emphasis on social and environmental issues.

"It wasn't like they would give away the store just to get jobs, either," he says. "They're very business-oriented, but not just business-oriented. They're community-oriented. They look at everything. They want to have jobs for the people so they don't have to go anywhere else."

Lake says he was asked searching questions about everything from his plant's impact on the environment to his projected range of employment opportunities, especially the projected mix between skilled and unskilled jobs. He says that the questions were "tough, but once they [CDF staff] got the answers, they moved fast."

"They're so concerned about the schools," he adds. "When we first came here, we had 'Industrial Day.' I didn't go to the high school. I went to an elementary school. I thought this was a cool idea—and then I learned it was their sixteenth annual one! They hadn't just read about it. They were the ones who've been doing it for someone else to read about."

It's almost certainly not incidental that the CDF has had only four executives during its 50-year history; Martin has served in that capacity since 1956. But everyone you talk to describes essentially the same vision: a diversified economy, jobs at varying skill levels but with an emphasis on upgrading, and jobs close to home. The Lee County leadership is as competitive and market-oriented as any group you'll find anywhere, but they clearly regard "quality of life" as more than a recruiting cliche.

"You've got lots of people trying to do something about rural development," Martin says, "but it's too late when the people are gone. Those [Lee County] farms are still being operated, even if by fewer farmers. We still have those little churches and those little cemeteries. Not only did we never lose our rural population, we never had people who were uprooted and had no value system. We're bucking the trends because we've got the product manufacturers most want—a work ethic. And rather than letting one area get bigger and bigger, we spread the growth around. That's synergy. It's not wealth that counts—it's the human energy."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.