By Jeremy Weldon
Rumors about the possible sale of the empty Batesville Casket Company in the Industrial Park continued to swirl around the city this week. But, Joe Azar of the Panola Partnership told The Panolian again Thursday that the rumors are just that, although he continues to aggressively market the building and has shown it to industrial prospects several times in the past couple of months.
The 200,000 sq. foot building has been empty almost a year. Once an anchor of the Industrial Park with an attractive structure and landscape facing I-55, Batesville Casket pulled its last employees from the building last summer.
At its best, the casket company employed 523 people and was considered one of the best factories in the area for worker pay and benefits. The business began scaling back in 2010 and finally announced its closing of the Batesville plant in Nov. 2016.
The closure was a major blow to the area workforce, and local economic development efforts have been focused on replacing those lost jobs for the past year.
Azar, the point man for economic development efforts undertaken by both City of Batesville and Panola County officials, believes it’s just a matter of finding the right industry to match with the existing structure and the available workforce.
“We are working very hard to bring those jobs back to Batesville and Panola County,” Azar said. “Our office has shown the property several times to some really strong prospects.”
What doesn’t help the process, Azar noted, is unsubstantiated rumors of new industry coming to Batesville or other areas of the county.
Much of the recent confusion about the casket property was caused by the Memphis television stations two weeks ago when they erroneously reported that Ashley Furniture Industries, which has a large production facility in Ecru, was moving into the vacant building.
The television news reporters apparently based their stories on rumors picked up in the community after one station shot footage of an Ashley Furniture 18-wheeler and trailer on Corporate Dr. in the Industrial Park.
In reality, the Ashley trucks were headed to Southern Beverage Co., in the Industrial Park, delivering beer.
While not out of the realm of possibility that Batesville residents simply consume more beer than the distributorship can truck in on their own, it’s more likely that the real explanation is found in the logistics of moving beer from there to here.
Ashley Furniture regularly runs trucks to St. Louis loaded with chairs, couches, and other goods, and haul trailers of Anheuser-Busch products from the breweries there rather than “deadheading” back south empty.
The T.V. reporters mistakenly thought the Ashley trucks were going to the casket property adjacent to the distributorship.
In other Industrial Park news, Batesville aldermen and county supervisors agreed this week to share the cost of building a 500-foot road from Corporate Dr. to a 13-acre tract of land in the north eastern part of the park.
Azar said Panola Partnership will assist in the marketing of the land and needed a road for access to the property. The owners are willing to divide the acreage, which is zoned I2, for heavy industrial business, he said.
The new road will be built by county crews, and the cost of overlaying it with asphalt will be covered from the city’s coffers.