Friday, April 27, 2007

Reeling in Toyota

On our trip back home, we stopped in Tupelo, MS (population 34,211) so that I could show our group one of my model towns for economic development. Even though Toyota was due in town the next day for the groundbreaking for their $1.3 billion plant, David Rumbarger, head of the Community Development Foundation, met with us for an hour to talk about Tupelo’s efforts to land Toyota.

David started with a bit of the history of their economic development efforts, “We were considered the poorest county in the poorest state in the early 1900s. We were hit hard in 1932 when a tornado literally wiped out the town and 265 people died. But things started to turn around when George McLean moved to town to buy a bankrupt newspaper from a bankrupt bank. He got people to thinking together and to focus upon economic development.”

“In 1948 he got 18 different business associations in the area to combine into the Community Development Foundation so that we could hire a full time manager. He went down main street, literally with his hat in his hand to raise $500,000 to bring in a Rockwell plant and $150,000 to bring in Morris Futorium, a furniture manufacturer from Chicago. We have over 20 companies that trace their roots back to Futorium’s plant, which ended up being built in neighboring Union County because they had an existing building.”

Those efforts helped to turn Tupelo into the Furniture Capitol of the South and developed a strong manufacturing base in the area. The Community Development Foundation has grown into a staff of over 20. David commented on Tupelo’s efforts compared to other towns, “I’ve seen too many towns that think that they can do economic development with a budget of $150,000. They are out of their league and not in the game.”

Last year another economic developer with one of the major utilities we work with compared it to C-Leaguers trying to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, I found that too many towns take that approach and as a result never get the chances like Tupelo has gotten and taken advantage of.

David went on, “We first competed for a Toyota plant in 2002 when they decided to locate outside of San Antonio. But, we didn’t have the land assembled and didn’t have everything ready, like we did this year. We put together three counties into an alliance to promote this site and did over $500,000 in studies on it to make sure that we were ready if they or another big company showed up.”

“I’m convinced that to be successful in this game, you’ve got to figure out how to eliminate risk for the company and find your niche. We have a 33% density in manufacturing because of all of our furniture manufacturers. That compares to only 7% in San Antonio, 5% in Atlanta, 12% in Princeton, IN and 13% in Georgetown, TN.”

“Our governor, Haley Barbour, made a huge difference in getting them here. He became personally involved and made a number of trips to Japan to help lure Toyota to Mississippi. He got special legislation passed to take care of a couple of problems we had on the site and was one of the main reasons they are coming to Tupelo.”

If you’d like to hear the Tupelo Story, I’m helping to bring David Rumbarger to a regional ED annual meeting in Effingham, IL on May 17th. I’d love to have you attend and hear the remarkable story.

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