Perceptions of Mississippi changed after Katrina

Published 2:34 pm Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Believe it, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina changed attitudes about our state. More than any public relations campaign could do, our dogged determination, cooperation and charity after the storm made a lot of people around the world change their perceptions about Mississippi.

This new perception is changing attitudes and creating unprecedented opportunities here.

In fact, Alabama’s economic development director last week remarked that international business people now regard Mississippi and Alabama as America’s “hot spot.”

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But even before Katrina started changing their attitudes, many Mississippians started changing our attitude. We decided to be players in the world economy, no longer content to let people who don’t know a thing about Mississippi define us. That decision continues to pay off.

Last week Mississippi again was a winner on two major international projects. First, PACCAR, the Washington state-based company which builds Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks, announced it would put a 500-job engine manufacturing plant in Columbus.

Then, the German company ThyssenKrupp announced it would locate a giant 3,000-employee steel mill, just minutes from the Mississippi/Alabama state line near Mobile.

And Union, Lee and Pontotoc counties now are abuzz with construction of the upcoming 2,000-job Toyota plant in Northeast Mississippi that was announced last month.

Naturally folks now may ask how we keep this growth going, and more evenly spaced. That’s up to each of you and your community.

Without a doubt it helps when our state’s Congressional delegation, Governor Barbour and the leaders of our neighboring states work together to court new jobs. I’ve got many contacts, as does Governor Barbour. But ultimately growth begins at home when locals articulate a vision for where they want their area to be in five, 15 or 20 years.

Several years ago, Northeast Mississippi — specifically Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties — saw an opportunity and decided they wanted the next auto plant. They coalesced around a mutual site and marketed it aggressively. A couple of years later, along came Toyota which found a ready home in the Tupelo area.

ThyssenKrupp narrowed their site selection to New Orleans and Mobile. Mississippi and Alabama’s leaders believed cooperation would mutually benefit our twin states.

In fact, Senator Cochran and I signed a letter openly supporting the Mobile site, and the Governors of Alabama and Mississippi worked together to win it. More important, local officials from Pensacola to Lucedale worked together to help win these 3,000 primary and 30,000 ancillary jobs. Ultimately the local people decided to take the initiative, and they won.

Without a doubt, America is changing. Communities change. Companies change. And to keep America strong, we’ve got to have vision to see what changes are ahead, and how those changes might impact our local communities.

As Mississippians continue to win new jobs, there will be more and more people asking how we can spread new growth evenly around our state. I can’t answer that question. Neither can anyone in the media, in academia or the international business community. It’s a question that can only be answered by local folks, person by person, town by town, county by county.

Yes, I do believe there are regions of our state that can do better and that must work better together. But the local folks must drive it, determining whether they want growth, what kind of growth they want, and then finally resolving to get it.

It takes physical sites; it takes an available workforce; it takes education and it takes time and money. Most of all, it takes vision, vigor and the will to change. At no other time in Mississippi’s history has our state had such opportunity. Is your community changing with Mississippi?

(Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (attn: Press Office))