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‘Helping Build Mississippi,’ one development at a time
Major employers like Nissan, Continental Tire and Amazon are only the latest economic development successes in Mississippi. Leaders in the state began planting the seeds for the levels of job creation we enjoy today during and after the biggest economic disaster in U.S. history—the Great Depression.
Although Mississippi began to experience the economic hardships that defined the thirties relatively late, it fell just as hard as other states. According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, farm income dropped 64 percent from 1929 to 1933. Over the same time, the average annual income—already the lowest in the nation—dropped to just $117. And on a single day in 1932, one-quarter of the state’s farmland was sold for the taxes owed.
When Hugh White was elected governor in 1936, he brought to the state legislature an economic development concept that had attracted new investment to his hometown of Columbia, in the heart of the logged-out Piney Woods. To entice a textile manufacturer to town, White had convinced locals to pledge promissory notes to secure an $85,000 bank investment to build a factory. The deal was so successful that the plant made good on its wage and employment promises in four years, far ahead of its ten-year goal.
Legislation creating the Balance Agriculture with Industry program enabled cities and counties around the state to hold bond elections to finance their own land purchases and plant construction. The program gained steam as agriculture began to wane as the dominant force in the state economy, but by the 1950s, mechanization of the farming industry had greatly accelerated the decline in jobs for farm laborers. Over the next 15 years, agriculture in Mississippi lost 142,000 jobs.
Mississippi Power & Light recognized the need for more industry to replace these jobs. The company created the Helping Build Mississippi initiative—now regarded as the state’s oldest private economic development program—and began to rally communities throughout its certificated region of the state.
“We needed to help our customers have more and better-paying jobs,” says Donald Meiners, who retired as president of Entergy Mississippi in 1999. “As long as I've been affiliated with the company, that has been our goal and a way of life. It wasn't just some words; it wasn't just a slogan.”
New ad department plays key role
Under the direction of a new advertising department, MP&L funded economic surveys about its service area that underscored notable changes in agriculture, manufacturing and the migration of people from those farming-centric rural areas to towns and cities. The company published its findings in a glossy magazine and dedicated a dozen staffers to seeking and facilitating economic development opportunities.
Meiners led efforts with employees at every level bringing new industries to Mississippi, as well as to help them use electricity efficiently. But they also worked closely with community leaders to determine their potential assets to companies, including the available workforce, and helped them become attractive to industrial site selectors. As with any effective partnership, every entity involved—from MP&L to the banks and chambers of commerce—had an interest in working together to raise the state’s economic fortunes.
“Mississippi cannot grow without an adequate and affordable supply of power,” Meiners says, which MP&L was ready to provide. “And our company could not grow if Mississippi did not grow. That was true then, and it is true now.”
Mississippi couldn’t land many industrial deals without replicating, to some degree, the quality of life the prospective company executives enjoyed in their home regions, which were more developed than Mississippi at the time. Meiners says they quickly realized the need to support arts and culture in order to create entertainment and raise the quality of life. Each piece of the puzzle stacked to make Mississippi attractive to industry.
MP&L empowered and expected their employees, from leadership to linemen, to help their communities grow. Will Mayo, who worked in economic development at MP&L/Entergy from 1979 to 2002, says partnering with local Main Street associations and other community development organizations beginning in the 1980s helped revitalize downtowns and historic areas.
“In order to be successful,” Mayo says, “we needed to do more than just go out and call on businesses. We needed to prepare the communities.”
Grants, due diligence yield results
Every year since 2017, Entergy has awarded Excellerator grants to local and regional economic development organizations to help them stay competitive in marketing their sites and communities—nearly half a million dollars to date. And through its Qualified Sites program, Entergy helps communities with due diligence to make sites shovel ready, which in turn makes investment as turnkey as possible for prospective industries.
Ed Gardner keeps Entergy Mississippi laser-focused on these programs as its current director of business and economic development, and those efforts continue to turn into better economic opportunities throughout its service region. He shares another perspective on why such initiatives are vital to a healthy economy and quality of life.
“We have aging infrastructure that we have to replace, and that costs money,” he says. “But one of our missions also is to keep rates affordable for our customers. To accomplish both of those things, it’s important to add growth.”
“Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the projects that we see now are ten times the size of the projects before,” Gardner says. “If we saw a 15- or 20-megawatt project, that was huge. The projects we're seeing now are 100 megawatts, 200 megawatts, 400 megawatts. We're now seeing projects that size on a regular basis.”
In addition to the new, highly automated Amazon fulfillment facility in Madison County, Gardner sees areas such as Grenada County, where Milwaukee Tool is building a new plant, and DeSoto County as primed for future growth. The Milwaukee Tool factory helped accelerate building a new Entergy substation, which will in turn support more growth in the area.
Gardner cites two key tools Entergy Mississippi uses to attract new development today: the 50/50 matching Exellerator Grants they award annually, which help communities cover site development and marketing costs, as well as the Qualified Sites program.
“We currently have 10 qualified sites where we work with the community to make sure all the due diligence is done on the site, and that removes the risk for potential investors,” Gardner says. “It's a rigorous program, but if a community meets all those criteria, we'll put our stamp on it.”