Jackson County Flourishing in Its Economic Development Eco-System

Northrup Grumman’s manned and unmanned systems facility is an example of the sector diversity in Jackson County.

How one Gulf Coast county is implementing an industrial cultivation process to augment its economic development

By Philip Shirley

Today, economic development isn’t just about putting a new metal Quonset hut on the edge of town with 25 new welding jobs, although that is still a shot in the arm for a small town or rural county.

The amazing success we are observing in Jackson County, Mississippi, over a year and a half of banner growth takes a totally different approach. It demonstrates next-generation thinking of how we create the environment in which communities prosper from industrial growth by fostering cooperation across sectors, then utilizing a broad spectrum of talent, creativity, and emphasis on building strong, livable communities. It’s something we all need to study and understand better.

The bottom line in Jackson County over roughly 18 months shows more than 3,000 jobs and $500 million in capital investment.

So what’s behind this noteworthy success?

Teamwork must be an action plan, not a slogan

I recently sat down with George L Freeland, Jr., executive director, and Mary Martha Henson, deputy director, of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation to discuss their unprecedented string of wins since mid-2019.

According to Freeland, “Nothing is random about this. It’s a thoughtful and strategic approach, with a goal of building infrastructure and fostering collective efforts by a big team.”

Freeland gives credit to a range of people aligned to build success across the county. This team includes, among others, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors, state house and senate delegation members, industrial leadership, utilities, the Jackson County Port Authority, and many elected officials. And Freeland is quick to mention state government support from Mississippi Development Authority and workforce training from a number of educational institutions, such as Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

These joint efforts have created a powerful initiative moving beyond the traditional model for industrial recruiting and focusing detailed attention on infrastructure that takes on a life of its own as a synergistic eco-system for growth.

“When we cultivate our corporate sectors and support them,” Freeland said, “good things happen. Chevron, for example, is investing in downtown Pascagoula. Not just inside their fence. That keeps young innovators in town and in turn supports other sectors.”

Henson recently stated that the community is “balanced between industry and nature”. She stresses the importance of living cohesively across this region-defining lifestyle of thriving industry and world-class outdoor activities, which are prevalent in the area with boating, sailing, fishing, kayaking, and beaches.

Jackson County’s traditional trifecta of shipbuilding, oil and gas, and chemical sectors are flourishing, but new sectors are emerging

We may sometimes take for granted the success of the key industrial categories we all know in Jackson County – shipbuilding, chemicals, and energy, for example. But the announcement in October 2019 of American Baitworks placing their national headquarters and manufacturing in the Sunplex Light Industrial Park didn’t follow the usual model.

Many will see this expansion as locating a consumer product company, with brands such as NetBait, Halo Fishing and Scum Frog. “But in reality,” says Henson, “this is a polymer injection tech company.” The superficial look may be of a nice manufacturing facility – and it is - but it’s actually another tech play in a county where technology is booming. And we find that this range of technologies being deployed in the county extend both thousands of feet below the earth in energy and thousands of feet into the atmosphere in aerospace.

In their most recent major announcement of a multi-million dollar project, Jackson County also extends its technology outward into the Gulf with the announcement in February by Mississippi State University of the creation of the Northern Gulf Aquatic Food Research Center. After approval by the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors and the Jackson County Port Authority, MSU announced plans to provide the seafood industry with robust safety testing and quality assurance. Future plans include a pilot plant for processing, shelf-life research, and product development. Funding sources include the RESTORE Act administered by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality—again demonstrating the partnership and team approach of the County.

Just down the street in another section of the Sunplex Park, the RespirTek Consulting Laboratory located its new headquarters and laboratory. The company delivers another technology for Jackson County, with services in biodegradability of consumer products, wastewater treatment and toxicity assessments, and bioremediation strategies among numerous other technologies.

Many across the State of Mississippi understand that shipbuilding by Huntington Ingalls was critical over the past half a century to paving the way to the economic vitality of the region. Now Halter Marine has joined that steady leadership from the shipbuilding sector with its own wins. These two cornerstone companies were major contributors to this string of economic development successes we want to examine.

The May 2019 award of the Polar Security Cutter to Halter Marine by the U.S. Department of the Navy provides a good starting point for looking at an 18-month growth spurt for Jackson County. This $746 million contract was for a multi-year Homeland Security level 1 investment to recapitalize the US Coast Guard’s fleet of heavy icebreakers. The three ships are scheduled for delivery in 2024, 2025 and 2027.

This type of expansion has generational impact. For this project, Halter Marine has teamed with ABB/Trident Marine for propulsion systems, Raytheon for command and control systems, Caterpillar for main engines, Jamestown Metal Marine for the joiner package, and Bronswerk for the HVAC system. Bringing in these Tier 1 suppliers enhances everything in a local economy in terms of brainpower, skilled labor, retail expansion, entrepreneurial mindset and other intangible assets - and creates future opportunity yet unforeseen.

The tangible and immediate bottom line is an additional 900 skilled craftsmen and staff to the shipyard. The positive results will be felt for decades in this community in terms of housing, shopping, community improvements, growing tax base, and quality of life to keep the younger brain trust from moving away, as well as attracting the brain trust from across the region as opportunities grow.

As a follow up in March 2020, Halter Marine announced its selection for the nearly $40 million U. S. Navy’s fourth Auxiliary Personnel Lighter – Small 67 Class (APLs). The first three APLs construction had begun in 2018 and two are near delivery. If all six options are exercised, the total contract will run more than $244 million.

While the traditional shipbuilding with Halter Marine expands, Huntington Ingalls continues to grow at a torrid pace as well – a remarkable record for a company whose roots extend to a shipbuilding company originally founded more than 80 years ago in Pascagoula and with a dramatic local expansion in the 1960s.

Last May, Huntington Ingalls announced a $1.5 billion contract to construct a new San-Antonio class amphibious dock ship. Only a month later, the company announced a $936 million contract for a Burke-class destroyer, the USS Thad Cochran, capable of defending the nation in air, surface, and subsurface battles.

As the area expands beyond its traditional big three sectors, watch closely as military growth begins to expand.

Freeland says, “We are well positioned for the future of military growth.” He goes on to discuss the future growth in manned and unmanned aerospace. Two product lines in unmanned flight are already supported in Jackson County.

The Port of Pascagoula continues to do its part as a valuable diversification partner for local industrial activity. In late 2019 ground was broken for Enviva’s new marine export terminal at the Bayou Casotte Harbor. This project lets Jackson County enter the renewable energy sector, as Enviva Biomass exports 90,000 metric tons of wood pellets annually from its South Mississippi operations to Asia and Europe to meet growing sustainable biomass fuel demands.

The success of the core industrial base continues its hot streak and diversified projects list. Last October, Northrop Grumman initiated the build for Australia’s first Triton capable of a game-changing unmanned maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft. This is a joint project between the Royal Australian Air Force and the U.S. Navy.

Also last year, in what he described as a “win, win, win”, Daniel Rediger, Rolls Royce, Head of Naval Operations, announced a major upgrade to the naval facility at Pascagoula where it produces U.S. Naval ship propulsion components. The beneficiaries were Jackson County, Rolls Royce and the U.S. Navy as this expansion created highly skilled jobs and improved capacity.

Sustained growth requires a sophisticated look ahead to anticipate issues

“We spend a lot of time focused on public policy issues surrounding environmental permitting and the need to sustainably develop additional sites,” said Freeland. “We try to anticipate and solve those issues in advance through predetermined agreements that provide for a responsible development of our natural resources.”

Sustainable growth means constant attention to the issue in general, not just as it comes up when a project arises. So a joint effort is ongoing to resolve those issues before they come up in discussions with expansion prospects.

One major project supporting infrastructure last year was a $6.7 million award for Trent Lott International Airport runway improvements. The project will boost capacity and support larger aircraft for Jackson County and South Mississippi.

Freeland pointed out the importance of this expansion “to the world-class manufacturing at Northrup Grumman’s manned and unmanned systems facility” to bolster growth in aviation in the county.

The county maintains three ready sites in addition to the Lott International Airport as a starting point for supporting existing-industry growth and having available locations for new industry.

Real estate for any potential development project is critical, so the key entities that control or influence the use of real estate are equally critical to successful outcomes. Whether it’s the Port, the Airport, county supervisors or real estate professionals, these key players join the economic development team with both commercial and residential site locations ready for discussion immediately. Again, the emphasis in not just on having those professional resources out there – it is on bringing them onto the team and into the room when decisions are made and strategies are being developed. One can sense that Freeland and Henson want everyone to have their say and for everyone to get credit. “Build the infrastructure, foster collective efforts,” Freeland says.

Obviously, workforce availability is essential, along with training. Part of the Jackson County program is an ongoing series of actions to address workforce. One, for example, is an emphasis on apprenticeships in a joint effort with the Department of Labor and the MGCCC.

“We try to make training easier to obtain,” Freeland said. He believes the emphasis should be equal on the pipeline of new jobs and making sure existing industry has what it needs for stability and growth. “To some extent, we really want to focus on quality of jobs not quantity.”

Henson stresses the importance of attention to the existing industry and not just running to the new project.

One thing the Foundation staff has to watch is alignment of shared success, she says. “We make sure that we are helping to influence public policy that facilitates economic development.” This sharing of information helps keep everyone from local officials to Jackson to Washington, D.C. engaged as part of the team that can share in the success.

The secret sauce

While examining these phenomenal successes in Jackson County, it seemed worthwhile to take an outsider’s look at what goes into the secret sauce. Here are a few key elements observed as ingredients to the mix:

  • Give credit – to build a sense of ownership and teamwork there is no hesitation to allow anyone and everyone who touches a project to share in the credit
  • Start success at home – attention is paid first to the care and feeding of existing industry sectors to make sure they continue to be successful, before attention is turned to the shiny new project
  • Anticipate instead of reacting – build the industrial parks, expand the airport, address the public policy issues head on, assist in training (of course every economic development pro knows all of this, but Jackson County is a great example of doing it right)
  • Be seamless and service oriented to streamline the process – nothing seems to frustrate site selectors and consultants more than having to march from door to door for information instead of a centralized presentation of answers and solutions
  • Focus on quality not quantity – by placing emphasis on technology, highly skilled trades, and executive suites the investment will follow. And quantity will result indirectly from quality.

Community first, not just jobs

Taking care of the community and its educational needs is part of the equation. Chevron stepped up last April to address increasing educational issues due to COVID-19 by donating $500,000 to the Keep Kids Learning initiative.

“Investing in the communities where we operate is a core Chevron value,” said Amy Brandenstein, community affairs for Chevron. This donation allows teachers to shop for individualized care packages and essential supplies for students to keep up with their curriculum at home.

The importance of a business-friendly environment cannot be overstated. Corporate decision makers go where they feel welcome and supported. Jackson County openly states its business-friendly community as a core value, then works to back up its claim.

There is no one group that is more important, as the team effort includes active involvement by the mayors of four municipalities, Jackson County supervisors, the port authority, the airport authority, state senators and representatives, educational leadership, the industrial development authority, and local industry leadership all working in coordination with the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation.

Freeland calls it “seamless interaction of all parts of the project. It is economic development with a higher calling.”


About the author

Philip Shirley is a long-time member of the Board of Governors of MEC. He is executive chairman of Godwin, a Local Marketing Solutions Company, as well as former president of the $4 billion Marketing and Advertising Global Network. He has published numerous articles in consumer magazines and business publications along with five books of fiction, higher education issues, and a social history of Major League Baseball.

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