Mississippi plan may work after intense work

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2003

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Gov. Bob Riley’s plan for Alabama’s Black Belt and a commission he devised to help develop this area of the state.

In that column, I also addressed one of Riley’s ideas &045;&045; to combine east Mississippi and west Alabama in an effort to lure an industry to this region of Alabama. To be blunt, I didn’t like the idea at all. I felt like combining the most depressed area of Alabama with the most depressed area of Mississippi would send us all to the funny farm of economic development. It seemed like we were combining the football programs at Vanderbilt University and UAB and trying to create an SEC contender.

In retrospect, I still believe the argument holds water. At the same time, my thoughts on the project have changed a bit.

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Earlier this week, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove formally announced that he’s ready to begin the process of finding an industrial site and to join Alabama in luring a major industry to the area. In his announcement, Musgrove said nothing that differed from what Riley said a month ago. In fact, the plan is still in the development stages and tells us little about what actually will happen should an industrial site be found and a major industry choose that site.

When you think about the idea, though, there are some incredible opportunities for this region of Alabama.

Apparently, the site Musgrove and Riley have considered is near the Cuba exit off I-20/59. The land, I believe, would border both Alabama and Mississippi, but more importantly, it would rest about 30 minutes from Demopolis.

Riley has a lot more sense when it comes to governmental decisions than I’ll ever have. He and Musgrove have spent more time thinking about this, I’m sure, than I’ve spent punching letters on a keyboard, and their idea could lead to a breakthrough in the economy of our region.

Apparently, Kia Motors has begun the exploration of an automotive plant somewhere in this region of the nation. With Alabama’s success in car manufacturer recruitment over the past decade, it’s a no-brainer that Kia likely will look toward this state in hopes of finding a location.

One of the reasons Alabama has had success recruiting car manufacturers is because of the incentives packages our state can offer to prospective industries. We all know the news stories that were written about Mercedes, and we know the Alabama Legislature passed an incentives bill worth more than $100 million for Hyundai.

Here’s the problem: Our state is out of money, and Mississippi darn near went broke trying to lure Hyundai one year ago.

On top of that, Alabama’s bond debt is like most of our credit cards. We’ve borrowed so much money that we can ill afford to go asking for more.

Because of financial concerns in luring a new automotive industry, Riley and Musgrove may be on to something. If we combine our few funds, we may rattle up enough change to get another major car manufacturer to this region of the state. And who knows? We might find a silver dollar at the bottom of the piggy bank.

For Demopolis, we’re sure to see an enormous boon to the economy if this project actually works. For one, Alabama would be forced to drop most other road projects in the state and complete U.S. Highway 80. If those 22 miles of U.S. 80 were completely 4-laned, the economic development abilities for us would multiply 10 fold. And because of our education system and the beautiful riverfront property bordering Demopolis, executives and employees from any new major industry couldn’t find a better place to live than our city.

The joint venture that lies ahead between Alabama and Mississippi could become the greatest economic development idea since the interstate system. As for us, it would change Demopolis forever.

If there’s one problem I still see, it’s building a partnership between two states and two sets of rules. As anyone knows, Alabama and Mississippi both need money (just like every other state in the Union.) If we are successful in luring a major industry that borders Alabama and Mississippi, we must take extra caution that the two states clearly put on paper the rules of engagement.

Currently, Alabama is in the midst of a dispute with Georgia and Florida over the use of water. The lawsuits still haven’t been settled after nearly a decade of fighting, and we don’t need another legal problem to arise from a pact with Mississippi.

Riley and Musgrove must use extreme caution when crafting the legislation that allows for the two states to lure one manufacturer. If they’re not careful, our golden plan will turn into a fight over who receives what tax revenue from the industry, and the project will cause more headaches than any one industry could cure.