Can area learn from IP deal?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 17, 2003

&uot;Let me guess,&uot; Jackson County’s economic developer said. &uot;You’re calling me about paper mills.&uot;

It was an easy guess. After all, Jackson County supervisors just voted earlier this month to issue $3.5 million in bonds to purchase and adapt an International Paper mill that closed there in 2001.

And as of Friday Adams County economic development leaders are still working with IP on the possibility of acquiring the IP mill that closed in late July of this year, according to Natchez-Adams EDA Director Michael Ferdinand.

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That being said, George Freeland, director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, was quick to point out there’s no magic bullet for successful negotiation of such a deal.

He would say, however, that much of the work necessary to make the Jackson County deal happen had to be done before talks even began in earnest.

How big a hit was the closing of the IP paper mill to Jackson County, where it had been located under one owner or another since the early 1900s? About 350 jobs, with each paycheck turning over in the local economy 3.5 to 4 times, according to the latest multipliers.

And it was a hit to Freeland as well.

&uot;I accepted this job on Wednesday,&uot; he said, &uot;and they announced the closure to two days later.&uot;

IP officials had made up their minds about the closing of the mill, so it was up to Jackson County leaders to make the best of it but seeing how the property could best be used and how it could be obtained.

With that in mind, the EDF got together a group of EDF staffers, Port Authority representatives and local government leaders together to decide what the area’s economic development needs were.

Once that was determined, the group could decide how the facility could best be used to help the area meet those needs. &uot;What was the best adaptive reuse (of the property)?&uot; was the question they asked, Freeland said.

Leaders then took care in selecting people for the team that would negotiate with IP, including in that group the economic developers, engineers and attorneys necessary to seal the deal.

&uot;You’ve got to have the right people involved locally,&uot; Freeman said.

Only then, he said, could Jackson County approach IP with a plan to adapt the facility in a way that would benefit both the company and the local economy.

&uot;You’ve got to have proactive economic developers and other professionals Š who can sit down to discuss with the company what’s mutually beneficial and set about pursuing that,&uot; Freeland said.

Why were engineers involved? To make sure any environmental remediation of the site is done to the county’s satisfaction.

That’s the next step, in fact. In the agreement with Jackson County, IP agreed to demolish the mill facility within 18 months, with the county’s engineers and the Department of Environmental Quality present each step of the way.

Under the agreement, Freeland said, IP is responsible for any environmental problems found at the site, and the company is providing a $10 million environmental indemnification policy as well.

Even the rail lines at the site must be ripped up to search for any environmental hazards lurking beneath, Freeland said.

Which brought him to the next topic. While $3 million is being spent to acquire the property itself, $500,000 in bonds is also being used to fund infrastructure improvements such as bringing new rails all the way into the site, as well as for site work and grading.

(Jackson County supervisors haven’t determined how the bonds will be repaid. Supervisors President Frank Leach said they could rely on tax revenue generated by new businesses that locate at the industrial park, according to the Associated Press. Leach could not be reached for comment Friday.)

The EDF is also working to secure any state and federal grants possible, using the some of the bond proceeds as a match, according to Freeland.

The purpose is to show prospects sites that are completely ready to build upon &045; &uot;pad-ready,&uot; as Freeland put it. Such land is at a premium because much of Jackson County’s land is covered by wetlands or is otherwise environmental sensitive.

Advantages to the 200-acre site already include the access to the Interstate 10 corridor, rail access in all four directions and barge access via the Escatawpa River channel.

To get to this point, Freeland said, has taken &uot;an extensive process.&uot;

But he did note that IP &uot;was very proactive about engaging us from day one. They were quite clear that they were going to continue their commitment to Moss Point and to Jackson County and to work with us to identify what our needs were.&uot;