Monday, August 15, 2011

Despite success, work never done for Natchez Inc.

By Emily Lane

NATCHEZ — Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ has been getting picked on lately about the pressure his economic development team has created for itself after landing two big industries within two months time.

“I get the joke,” Russ said, “when people come up to me and say, ‘What are we doing next month?’”

Russ said the pressure to lure industries, however, remains the same — no less and no more.

Eye on the future

Attracting new companies to Natchez-Adams County will always be a front-burner issue, Russ said, regardless of the number of economic development announcements the governor makes about Natchez.

“Our work is not near done,” Russ said.

Russ said he still has a very active portfolio of prospective companies and Natchez Inc. is currently pursuing several projects.

But the nature of economic development business, Russ said, is that the naturally recurring life cycles of businesses requires communities to be consistently searing for the next one.

“Eventually, (businesses) do run their course,” Russ said.

Once a business closes after a certain number of years — often through no fault of its own — it’s too late to replace that business if others haven’t been recruited in the meantime.

“International Paper (Company) is an example of a (business) life cycle,” Russ said.

Russ said cigarette filters became a large sector of the products IP manufactured. And when the United States market for cigarettes began to shrink, IP suffered due no fault of its own.

“It wasn’t anything the labor force did or the community did (that led to the IP closing) other than national market shrinking on them,” Russ said.

Constantly seeking growth and new industries creates padding for those natural industry life cycles, Russ said.

“You have to keep churning the local economy at all times,” he said.

Eye on the present

After the politicians left town following the announcements of Elevance Renewable Sciences and Enersteel in June and August, respectively, Russ said plenty of work remained for Natchez Inc.

“Now you have to do what you said you were going to do as far as an incentive package,” Russ said.

Russ said the work he has already started by acting as a liaison to the Adams County Board of Supervisors in setting up tax breaks for Elevance will soon be in the works for Enersteel.

“And we have to keep projects on task and on track,” Russ said.

Russ said additional responsibilities include, for example, pursing upstream suppliers for chemical producing Elevance.

Russ will also be working with Copiah-Lincoln Community College and the WIN Job Center in Natchez on specifically geared training programs to provide both companies with a ready-to-go workforce.

Russ said Elevance is currently on track for beginning construction at the former Delta Fuel site in November.

Russ said Elevance has completed “a tremendous amount of engineering” during the last two to three weeks and is beginning to finalize some of plans for its ground-breaking.

“No one has indicated they have begun to slow down and (the company) is going full steam ahead,” he said.

Russ said those with lingering impatience for Rentech Industries should know the company is currently actively pursing capital investors to get the project off the ground, but the money is not available at this time.

Eye on the past

Russ said while there isn’t a magic number of jobs Adams County needs, it helps to look at the past to get a clearer sense of the economic health of the community today.

During the past 20 years, the labor market and number of people employed in Adams County has dropped by approximately 2,000 people.

In 1991, an average of 13,500 people were employed in all of Adams County and the labor force contained 15,170 people.

The labor force, Russ said, equals those either employed or seeking employment.

In 2010, an average of 11,790 people were employed in Adams County and the labor force contained 13,180.

“We’ve got a long way to go just to get back to where we were,” Russ said.

Russ said employment numbers also reflect a downward shift U.S. Census numbers from the past 20 years.

“So our work is not done yet, and it’s really never done,” Russ said. “It’s a constant progression.”

Eyes on Natchez-Adams County

While landing two big industries in a row isn’t an excuse to slow down recruiting other companies, Russ said recent announcements do bode well for luring other industries.

Regional media coverage and media coverage in trade publications — like the chemical and steel industries — gives Natchez-Adams advantageous exposure to prospective businesses, Russ said.

For example, if a steel supplier remembers reading Enersteel just located in Natchez, Russ said the company might realize the area has a good environment for steel. The media coverage might also let them know about the 250-ton pedestal crane at the Natchez-Adams County Port, not to mention the area’s access to the river,

“It puts them in the mindset (to locate in Natchez),” Russ said.

Russ said while he won’t slow his recruiting, he will happily accept the perks of the momentum from the success of landing two quality companies as a result of a team effort between Natchez Inc., the Mississippi Development Authority, the Adams County Board of Supervisors and other groups.

“Momentum is definitely something that is important in this businesses,” he said.

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