Sunrise on the Delta – Washington County Goes for Growth

Washington County Economic Alliance
Written by David Caldwell

Water-rich riverine plains make Washington County, Mississippi ideal for agribusiness. But this is no sleepy farm community. The Washington County Economic Alliance is driving a vigorous workforce development program to prepare its workers for the aerospace and manufacturing sectors, too…

On the banks of America’s mightiest river, a new powerhouse is rising. Washington County, Mississippi, is capitalizing on its natural advantages to expand both for agribusiness and the world beyond it. The Washington County Economic Alliance, or WCEA, has spearheaded these local economic initiatives as a public/private partnership since 2007.

Executive Director Will Coppage and his colleagues are also heavily involved in workforce development programs across the region, ensuring that Mississippi is cultivating capable workers for 21st century growth.

Washington County’s location and topography give it distinct advantages for agriculture and agribusiness. Its placement on the Mississippi Delta naturally provides flat, highly arable land for cultivation. “In other parts of the state, you have to worry about geography, meaning slope, incline, rocks and soil,” WCEA Executive Director Will Coppage says. “This is some of the best soil in the area.”

The right place
Two sites are already ripe for development: one, 800 acres in size, is shovel-ready and pad-ready with all utilities provided. A second site of 500 acres is also primed for standard industrial development.

In addition to the land, the Mississippi itself provides a natural, cost-effective shipping corridor. The county’s seat and largest city, Greenville, also boasts a 70,000 square foot multimodal port facility capable of handling four barges simultaneously. The county’s close proximity also makes the river a natural aquifer, thereby reducing utility costs across the region.

This natural arability has long attracted some of America’s finest agronomic minds. Washington County’s town of Stoneville is home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Facility (ARS) and is the headquarters for the USDA’s Southeast region. This facility boasts advanced laboratories dedicated to benefiting public and private-sector agricultural development alike.

The Stoneville facility itself comprises seven separate facilities, and the town is also home to laboratories operated by associated organizations such as Mississippi State University and the U.S. Forest Service. All told, the presence of the 800 employees (including 200 PhDs) of Stoneville’s various research facilities showcases the area’s natural fertility.

Interest from Mars
The county’s rich lands have attracted national and global names such as Mars Foods, which has operated a plant in Greenville under its subsidiary, the Uncle Ben brand, since 1978. Today’s Mars’ plant covers 110 acres with a workforce of 160.

In 2014, Mars Foods announced a $31 million investment to build its own research and development plant, also in Greenville, to support Mars’ various global food brands. Building product manufacturer USG is also a strong presence in the area, with a plant that manufactures ceiling tiles.

“2018 was a very successful year for us,” Coppage remarks, describing it as a “catalyst year” that jump-started a development trend continuing today. Australian agribusiness-giant Nufarm has recently announced plans for a $20 million manufacturing facility creating 68 local jobs, the county’s first manufacturing jobs since 2004. With this and other developments, including a new Hilton hotel and a $40 million federal courthouse, development in Greenville and the surrounding areas is accelerating.

Coppage relates how the enthusiasm for growth is infectious throughout the county. “Washington County is growing, and that’s what’s exciting – you’re seeing money being spent, not just in big industry but in small retail, small commercial, everything from fast food restaurants… to new businesses and start-ups,” he says. “That’s what we’re seeing, and that’s just really magical.”

Airports and aerospace
But Washington County isn’t solely relying on agriculture to develop. WCEA hopes to further develop Greenville Mid Delta Airport, which currently offers service by Boutique Air to major hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta and has room to expand.

“We have this infrastructure that we are now able to tap into, and really try to leverage to recruit,” Coppage says, noting that WCEA intends to develop aerospace and manufacturing countywide as an addition to its present agribusiness.

But Coppage and his colleagues have long known – despite these obvious geographical advantages – that Washington County’s strongest asset remains its population. “We also have what really matters, which is the people. And we have the skilled people,” he says. The county’s relatively small population of 48,000 has a median age of 36, reflecting its youthful demographic – a strong asset in a nation with an aging workforce.

As part of its numerous workforce development programs, the WCEA has worked extensively with the non-profit education and skill development group ACT, which in 2017 certified Washington County as a ‘Work Ready Community’.

ACT’s Work Readiness Boot Camp, a nationwide certification program, develops economies at grassroots level by linking education and employment. Creating educational programs designed to directly benefit region-specific industries and sectors, the Work Ready Communities take a bottom-up approach to workforce development.

In May 2019, Washington County made ACT history by becoming the first county in the United States to reach the agency’s third maintenance-tier. This means that the county had both met and maintained its economic development goals for three consecutive evaluations since being certified in January 2017.

Ready for business
In the eyes of Coppage and his colleagues, this is a clear sign that Washington County is far more than just farmland. “That shows that a rural community such as Washington County can compete on a global level,” he says. “It shows that we have a formula for success, that an employer – whether an existing employer or a prospect coming into our community – doesn’t have to worry about workforce.”

As part of the Work Ready Communities program, ACT also offers the National Career Rating Certificate (NCRC), which both registered and former high school students can earn. As its name implies, the certificate is respected nationwide, allowing for greater economic mobility for workers. In Washington County, 628 students have taken the test thus far, more than any other county in Mississippi.

With four levels – Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum – the NCRC helps streamline job application requirements, as participating employers post their job ads with clear requirements based on NCRC levels.

Coppage relates how a local bank, advertising a teller job, received too many applications from underqualified workers. WCEA stepped in and profiled the job, determining that it required a ‘Silver’ NCRC rating. “Now they get 30 to 40 applications, and they can pull from [those applications] who they want to interview. It’s much more manageable, and [the company] knows applicants have a baseline skill, because this test provides a baseline.”

Washington County has incorporated the NCRC into high schools across the area, and Coppage believes this has contributed to the county’s success. “We’ve tested more high school students than any other county in Mississippi, and we can show what our skilled labor is. It’s an investment in what can be done.

“It’s allowed us to peak locally, because it allows us to show that we have a workforce that is much better than numerous communities that are manufacturing communities or industrial communities.”

Pathways to Possibilities
In addition to the high school-level NCRC, the WCEA also assists in the Delta-wide Pathways to Possibilities program, an annual interactive career-fair attended by well over 3,000 students, in Coppage’s estimate. These include eighth grade students and older At-Risk youth.

Far more than a simple trade show, Pathways to Possibilities takes a ‘don’t tell me, show me’ approach to jobs and career advancement. “You have linemen letting kids put equipment on and climb up a pole,” Coppage relates. “It’s overwhelming, almost, the number of pathways, and it’s just amazing to do.”

Now approaching its fifth year in 2020, Pathways to Possibilities has enjoyed steady support from Mississippi’s state legislature and furthers the county’s goal of fostering career development at a young age.

For older students and potential workers, the WCEA helped fund a high school manufacturing class along the same educational lines as the NCRC. Numerous students come through the course, with the intent of moving directly into rewarding manufacturing careers. “When these kids graduate from high school, they’ll graduate with the same certificate that the adults have, and they can go straight to work,” Coppage says. “That is a huge step.”

Creating opportunities
He wants those students, and others taught at the nearby Greenville Technical Center, “to be able to apprentice at local businesses and industries by the time they’re at least in their senior year, if not earlier. That’s a huge goal of mine.”

Creating apprenticeships is another of Coppage’s personal goals. “Apprenticeships allow students to see what options are there,” he says, and points out that they can be useful even if a student later decides to pursue a four-year college degree. “It’s not just an either/or, it’s all part of the ecosystem.”

Going further, he believes that apprenticeships could well be applied to medical, legal and other traditionally white-collar jobs. “Apprenticeships are not just for people to work in manufacturing.”

The WCEA appears resolute in its strong and effective focus on economic development and retention as well as workforce development. The agency strongly believes that this is the key to both retaining existing business and attracting new growth.

With outstanding natural advantages and grassroots workforce development programs, the county is ready for a bright future.

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