|By Billy Davis
When Sonny Simmons landed the CEO job at Panola Partnership in mid-August, he arrived in the middle of coming changes in the land "where the Delta meets the hills."
The mayor’s office in Batesville was under new leadership for the first time in three decades, and Sardis voters had elected a new mayor as well.
The South Panola school board had hired a new superintendent, who in turn hired a new high school principal, and both were given marching orders to improve academics. A sheriff’s race was just picking up steam.
While Simmons understood the history taking place when he arrived here two months ago, he hopes Panolians understand the future that’s coming.
Most importantly, Simmons believes, Panola County is poised to attract the "trickle down" effect of commerce and industry now jostling for building space in DeSoto County.
Years have passed since those industries flooded DeSoto, he said, and the room to build there is running short. The next stop further south is obviously Tate County, but industries are looking father south to Panola.
"Tate County has an industrial park, but they don’t have a lot of highly developable land because a lot of the land is low-lying along the interstate," said Simmons.
That means Panola County is the next logical stop in the southern migration, Simmons believes, and the preparation to welcome new business and industry should be happening right now.
Is Panola County ready?
‘We’re not there yet’
"We’re ready for smaller industries but the larger ones – we’re not there yet," said Partnership member Leonard Morris. "We’re ready for maybe a 500 (employee) industry maximum, and that’s about it."
Morris has a unique understanding of the Partnership after serving twice as interim director while the board of directors searched for a new hire.
During the most recent search that produced Simmons, Morris said he saw firsthand how industrial prospects view the Panola community – and also how Panola views them.
"I’ve think we’ve become complacent that the industries will come just because we’re here. That’s just not the case anymore," Morris said. "They don’t come anymore because of cheap labor. They come because of quality of life, such as housing, education and recreation, and incentives from us."
Industries lead job market
Panola County’s industries lead the job market here with 24.8 percent of the job force, according to 2000 figures from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), the state’s economic development agency.
Among the county’s industries, the most recent new job growth came from Batesville Casket, which announced in May that it is relocating about 200 jobs from a New Hampshire plant.
Twenty Batesville Casket jobs have been added so far as part of the job relocation, said Ken Waldrip, technical services manager for the company.
"The relocation is about 30 percent complete, and we have 60 to 80 new jobs to go," Waldrip said this week.
Panola County’s unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in September, down from double-digit numbers during the fall of 2004.
Simmons came to Batesville from the Mississippi Development Authority, where he recruited industries in the Business and Trade Division. He also brought political experience after serving as mayor and alderman in Winona.
While Simmons cautions that he is still learning about the county, he can list the strengths and weaknesses he has since discovered.
The strengths? Available infrastructure such as water/sewer, natural gas, and telecommunications.
The weaknesses? Too few industrial buildings to offer prospects.
The ideal plan, Simmons said, would be to construct an 80,000-square-foot "spec" building for industrial prospects to view.
CEO job a ‘juggling act’
Though unnamed by Simmons, still another weakness could be Panola County’s approach to economic development, namely the challenge of the Partnership to perform its job and an apparent lack of long-range goals.
Panola Partnership is an umbrella operation that encompasses the chamber of commerce, industrial recruitment and retainment, and the Main Street Program that aids development on the Batesville Square.
Simmons oversees the Partnership’s daily operation, aided by office manager and Main Street manager Colleen Clark, and assistant office manager Gloria Westbrook.
Brad Robison, the Partnership president for 2005-2006, believes Simmons’ experience and connections at the state level and political understanding make him a lucky catch for the Partnership. Allowing him to utilize his talents, however, remains a challenge since his job is so demanding.
"How do you capitalize on Sonny’s experience when he is staying completely swamped with all the hats he’s wearing?" said Robison. "He’s got a pretty good juggling act."
"In that job Sonny’s sure got to manage his time fairly well," said Morris of the demanding job. "The truth is that you need more help to do what’s got to be done if you want to see success."
Vision plan needs restart
Regarding a long-range plan for Panola, Robison said the idea was in its first phases under former Partnership CEO Blair Jernigan.
Jernigan, who took a job with the Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale, had been vocal about the need for a long-range plan, often adding that the Partnership CEO was just one piece of a larger puzzle.
"The process had been started under Blair, and now that we’ve got Sonny, we haven’t gotten back together as a board and brainstormed about where we need to go," Robison said.
"We need to go off somewhere on a Saturday afternoon and that’s all you do – have a planning strategy," Robison continued. "But it can’t be a plan of the Partnership board. It can’t be just what the Partnership says is the plan for Panola County."