Local officials say much work goes into making industrial announcements happen

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

When it comes to industrial development, for every shout &045;&045; the big, bold announcement of a new

business &045;&045; there are months of whispers.

At last week’s county supervisors meeting, it was announced that metal fabrication company Venco might locate at the Natchez-Adams Port, bringing at least 50 jobs to the area.

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A definitive announcement, said those close to the deal, could come in the next two weeks.

But such news comes only after several months of behind-the-scenes work by a team of state and local officials and economic developers, according to those who work with industrial prospects.

&uot;Sometimes you hear people criticize the EDA&uot; when there’s no news of industrial projects in the works, said Adams County Board of Supervisors attorney Marion Smith. But to land an industry, he said, &uot;there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about.&uot;

Spur-of-the-minute meetings with prospects in Natchez, or Jackson, or at the company’s headquarters.

Back-and-forth calls to firm up details.

Putting together the latest information on Adams County demographics.

Closed-door sessions with aldermen and supervisors on possible incentives.

All of those tasks, and more, take place in the effort to land a new industry, said Michael Ferdinand, executive director of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority.

&uot;It’s about developing a level of comfort&uot; between the company and local officials, said Ferdinand, who said his office now has serious six

prospects they work on every day, in addition to other inquiries and leads.

&uot;And it’s about attempting to solve the client’s needs.&uot;

The dating game

Some compared it to dating &045;&045; each party trying to find out more about the other, seeing whether this person is the one for them. But first &045;&045; some said nine months to 18 months before a final announcement &045;&045; comes the initial contact, a

prospect simply asking for preliminary information about a community.

In some cases a company or its site consultants will first contact the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development agency, or a major utility such as Entergy asking for information about communities that might fit its location needs.

That’s one reason it is so important to maintain good relationships with those agencies &045;&045; so that, if a prospect comes knocking, those officials are already familiar with Adams County’s needs and amenities are, said EDA Chairman Woody Allen.

In the initial stages, site selectors have been known to visit a community anonymously to see what its people are like and what it has to offer, said Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith.

&uot;A scout may come through half a dozen times before you ever know they’re there,&uot; Smith said. &uot;That’s the number one thing people need to realize. … It’s up to all of us. Because they’re looking for reasons to eliminate a possible location, not to keep it on the list.&uot;

But directly after the inquiry is made, &uot;what you do is meet with the company and try to determine what their needs are,&uot; Ferdinand said.

&uot;Then you identify which programs, federal or state incentives, they may qualify for and see if those are sufficient to meet their needs.&uot;

Local governments enter the picture

In some cases, the industry must go through an application process for such incentives and provide performance data and other information to the agency.

It’s at that point that Ferdinand approaches aldermen and/or supervisors to brief them on the prospect’s status &045;&045; and about any potential incentives, such as infrastructure improvements, local governments can offer.

In the case of Venco, supervisors were called upon to apply for a $650,000 Community Development Block Grant to build a rail spur to the location, provide water and sewer service and make site improvements.

That’s because only a local government, not the industry itself, can apply for a CDBG, and that’s the case with many other loans and grants, too, Ferdinand said.

&uot;In exchange, the industry guarantees a certain number of jobs,&uot; Ferdinand said.

Applying for grants and loans and offering other incentives are local governments’ major roles in landing industry, said Darryl Grennell, president of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

&uot;He (Ferdinand) doesn’t bring it to us until the time of those negotiations, rather than build up false hopes,&uot; Grennell said.

The principals of many industries also want to meet the mayor, supervisors president and other local leaders to learn what type of people they’ll be dealing with, Smith said. In that way, local officials act like ambassadors to industry.

&uot;It’s like a dance, I guess &045;&045; you’re trying to both get in step,&uot; Smith said.

&uot;You’re trying to accommodate them, finding out what their needs are, and they’re trying to get information about you. And most of the time, they’re also doing the same thing in other places, too.&uot;

Local governments, Smith said, also work to update information, such as demographics, that are needed for an industry to make its location decision.

In Venco’s case, several site visits and meetings with state and local officials were needed for the industry to feel comfortable with the location, Ferdinand said.

Repeat visits

The reason the public doesn’t hear much about such prospects before they sign on the dotted line is because those dealing with the project are often required to sign confidentiality agreements.

&uot;In many cases, (these companies) are in competitive situations&uot; and, because of that, don’t want information about their operations or possible relocations to leak out, Ferdinand said.

That is one reason, said those close to the Venco deal, it is important to have as few people deal with the prospect as possible &045;&045; to minimize information leaks and simplify the process.

Reducing the EDA board’s membership from 15 to five, and local boards agreeing to send all leads to the EDA’s Ferdinand for follow-up, has made the process of courting industry much more efficient, Grennell said.

&uot;Besides,&uot; said supervisors attorney Marion Smith, &uot;too many cooks spoil the broth.&uot;

Meanwhile, where does the Venco project stand? Until the final documents are signed, Ferdinand must still keep some information close to the vest, but he would say a little &045;&045; albeit, still in an almost-whisper.

&uot;There are still some final pieces to be put in place, … but I feel very positive about it,&uot; Ferdinand said.