Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Mississippi, lies the small city of Corinth and Alcorn County. On an early Friday evening, while citizens of Corinth are getting ready to go out to a local ball game or one of the many restaurants and live music venues in town, Clayton Stanley and his team are watching the last of the trucks depart from a 200-acre tract of land they purchased in 2013. After a lot of hard work, 40 acres are now “pad ready” for a major industrial manufacturer.
The land is located between two rail lines – the Norfolk Southern’s main line and Mississippi Central Short Rail – and is in close proximity to automobile parts producers, health care providers, plastic manufacturers, and wholesale trade and distribution providers. The land is waiting for a serious investor who wants to capitalize on access to these major transportation routes and surrounding industries.
The region already boasts major manufacturers like Caterpillar, which employs 1600 people in its engine manufacturing plant. In fact, Corinth is surrounded by advanced manufacturing facilities, accounting for 20 percent of the city’s total employment. The road that led here wasn’t paved in gold, but created by the hard, diligent labor of members of the Alliance.
Alliance President, Clayton Stanley, has been working hard for years to establish workforce training programs, financial incentives and outreach programs for citizens, local businesses and big industry. Formerly a lobbyist, he has a keen understanding of the push-pull dynamic between governments, industry and stakeholders and knows how to find solutions that are win-win-win. His primary focus is on leading the community’s economic development strategies and providing substantial, measurable progress. In October 2018, his team helped to get Alcorn certified as an “ACT® Work Ready Community.”
It wasn’t always this easy to have a large impact on the community. In the mid-90s, Alcorn County had a Chamber of Commerce made up of private businesses and a government sponsored industrial development organization. In larger cities, it is feasible to have a number of community organizations; all of them can get funding and hire full-time staff to take care of operations. But smaller communities have fewer funding sources. Alcorn County’s two organizations were duplicating services and competing for resources, funding and membership in a county of less than 40,000 people.
“In a town of our size at the time, you basically had two underfunded entities that in large part were doing a lot of the same things,” continues Stanley. “Some would argue they were doing a lot of the same things but because of a lack of staff, lack of funding… they weren’t doing any of it very well.” During the 90s, many cities across the southeastern United States amalgamated community organizations, as did the organizations in Alcorn County. Thus, the Alliance was born, with the goal of stimulating economic development and continually enhancing the quality of life for residents.
The organization is composed of a Board of Directors and member organizations representing local businesses. Funding for operational costs comes from government and member organizations. But the Alliance needed funds above operational costs to purchase and renovate lands to attract businesses and large industry, like the 200 acre dual rail site. So the team developed a third stream of funding through private donor investments, opening up new opportunities and streamlining the negotiation process.
“We can negotiate with companies and act like private sellers,” says Stanley. “We can make deals based on what’s best for our community… it gives us the flexibility to negotiate on the price and it doesn’t become politicized.” But the Alliance is doing much more than land deals; the organization is working alongside others in the community to produce tomorrow’s workers.
Corinth School District is regularly ranked as one of the top districts in the state. In 2016, the school district applied to a state program called “District of Innovation,” which gives schools greater autonomy over how to implement their educational programs. The public school district performs as well as higher funded schools, due to their leadership. “Corinth was the first one to do that and I tell you that to say our school district is second to none, it is outstanding,” explains Stanley.
One innovation was giving grade 11 and 12 students the opportunity to gain real-life work experience. “Our school districts worked closely with our industries to identify students who would make good fits in these industries for career opportunities. We celebrate them getting those internship opportunities and have a ‘signing day,’ much like you would have a football hero who signs with a college.” The Alliance augments these programs through its five-month leadership training program for grade 10 and 11 students that helps to teach leadership skills and instills community pride.
The Alliance was convinced that attracting large manufacturers meant taking part in producing and retraining talented young people who will stay in Alcorn, have successful careers and ultimately give back to the community. Two of the largest employment sectors are manufacturing and healthcare, and the Alliance is incentivizing young people to pursue careers in these directions.
Alcorn County’s tuition guarantee program makes all local students eligible for two years of paid tuition at a trade college. The requirement is that they are residents of Alcorn County who are recent high school graduates, plan to study within the state, and attend school fulltime while maintaining a C average. Stanley explains, “we want to train our workforce that’s the backbone of our manufacturing and healthcare economy. You want to be a nurse, we’ve got you covered. You want to be a maintenance technician in one of our high-tech factories, we’ve got you covered.”
This is a powerful incentive for students who may be tempted to jump into a low-skilled frontline healthcare or manufacturing job right out of high school to make a quick buck. But that rush of immediate gratification may be short-lived when they realize after a few years that they don’t qualify for the higher paying positions. Moreover, factory work is becoming more and more automated, and dangerous manual labor is a thing of the past in Alcorn. “In our factories here, the image of that hard, dangerous work couldn’t be any further from the truth. They are super clean, highly automated, very safe, very comfortable, high integrity careers and that’s going to continue to be more and more the case,” says Stanley.
Funding higher education will ensure the Alcorn region will continue to produce a highly technically skilled workforce. “A person who ran a machine that took parts off a line – that’s not going to be the job anymore. The job is going to be the person who operates the computer that operates the robot that makes the part.”
Certainly, there are reasons for young people to stay, but there is a big draw for newcomers too. Not only is the quality of life high, but with the Alliance boasting 400 members, new businesses coming to the area have the support of the Alliance and the broader business community. In addition to meetings and workshops, the Alliance also provide a mentorship program where new businesses can learn from existing ones. One example is within the tech industry. Years ago, the city of Corinth had one tech manufacturing business, and through its mentorship and model, another five have since opened, in both technology manufacturing and software. This is the Corinth way. And this is an attractive option for people who want to escape the big city, enjoy a high standard of living, have a low cost of living and find well-paid jobs.
As for the land on the new pads, it is ready to launch. The corporations that will take advantage of Corinth’s geographical location know they have a skilled labor force and stable community ready to take on whatever challenges are presented to them. Stanley has high hopes that an automotive company will see the advantage of locating near the city of Corinth in Alcorn. “If you look at a map of all the automotive car plants on it, we are strategically located between all of them in the southeast, with the newest one being the Toyota-Mazda one being constructed 100 miles east of here,” he points out. “Toyota also has a plant 45 miles south of here. We believe that is an obvious target for us where we can potentially get some new business.”
He could also see chemical related industries, petroleum, metals or heavy items that are dependent on rails. It’s not always easy for companies to find locations near railways, but to find 200-acre properties with dual rail access is certainly a blessing.
Whether you are an individual looking to relocate or a business looking to expand, have a look at Corinth. The weather, the people, the education system and plethora of outdoor activities and gourmet restaurants make it an easy place to call home.