Twin state alliance losing steam

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 2, 2004

The phrase has been heard over and over again &045;&045; from economic developers to the media: We have to work together as a region.

When it comes to recruiting new industry to West Alabama, officials clearly believe the ability to combine populations and road systems here offers the best potential to lure "the big fish," as it has been dubbed.

At the same time, do economic leaders in this region really think on a regional level? If so, exactly where does that region end?

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Most believe it stops at the Alabama state line, just before crossing into Mississippi.

In April, however, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed an historic pact that would combine the efforts of the two poverty-laced states to bring new jobs and economic development to the area.

Since that agreement, though, barley a word has been spoken about the joint venture. Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, said no specific federal dollars have been allocated to the project. Instead, money from the Delta Regional Authority &045;&045; which was slashed from $20 million to $5 million this year and is supposed to support eight states &045;&045; is the only revenue Davis said was available for the Alabama-Mississippi project. In other words, money is not available.

John Clyde Riggs, considered one of the leading industry recruiters in West Alabama, has yet to put much stock into the "regional" alliance between the two states.

That’s because nothing has, according to John Matson, spokesman for Gov. Riley.

A ray of hope?

So is there anyone out there who has taken this Alabama-Mississippi Alliance seriously?

Sit down and have a chat with Wade Jones, head of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation in Meridian. Tell him you want to talk about economic development. Tell him you’re from West Alabama. He’ll start talking, and he’ll start talking big.

Then Jones gives you the raw data to prove it.

Jones goes on about the quality of life in the region, the 440,000 population that lives within 65 miles of Meridian &045;&045; including cities in West Alabama.

That’s when Jones mentions the buzz word in Southeastern economic development these days: car manufacturers. He talks about the corridor of manufacturers that includes Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai and Nissan. He talks about the profound network of supplier locations already in the area.

To Jones, in other words, this area is primed for something exciting &045;&045; and the area doesn’t stop at the Mississippi state line. The line, to him, dissolves when you start talking about new jobs for the area.

As for the Alabama-Mississippi Alliance, Jones also is uncertain of the details. He’s not pessimistic about the economic plan, but Haley Barbour, who defeated incumbent Gov. Musgrove, has not yet taken office. Barbour wasn’t involved in the initial planning of the project, and Sally Birdsall, a spokeswoman for Barbour, could not provide details about Barbour’s stance on the alliance.

But the governor’s aren’t the most important figures to building a strong economic alliance between the twin states.