Jones County Company Wins OK For Economic Package

Officials hope a $31.5 million incentive package lawmakers approved Tuesday will boost high-tech development in and around Jones County. During the second special session of the year, House voted 115-2 and the Senate voted unanimously for a plan to help Howard Industries expand its computer and transformer manufacturing operations near Ellisville.

"It's going to mean more money in the bank for local citizens,'' said Rep. Joe Ellzey, D-Ellisville, whose district is near the Howard sites. "The more jobs we create, the more individual income taxes we create for the state.''

Howard will put $80 million into the expansion, and the state is requiring the company to create 2,000 new jobs -- 700 by 2007 and another 1,300 by 2012.

"Without the type of employees that we have in Mississippi, this would not be possible,'' said Billy Howard, chief executive officer of Howard Industries. "Mississippi has people that are very trainable.''

The state money will be used for recruiting and training workers, improving roads and water lines and constructing new buildings, lawmakers said. Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, said the state should break even on its investment by 2010.

The House amended the incentive plan to say Howard Industries could only count workers who are legally qualified to be employed in the United States. House Ways and Means Chairman Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said the restriction came in response to complaints on talk radio that some companies are hiring illegal aliens. He said Howard is conducting its business legally. Smith said the restriction will help some legislators make a case for supporting the incentive package.

"It's feel-good language, and there are some people back home who will have a better time with their constituents,'' Smith said.

Before the session convened, some lawmakers said the state would set a risky precedent by handing out millions of dollars of incentives for a company that's already doing business in Mississippi. Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said Monday that if Mississippi gives millions of dollars of help to Howard, officials can expect other companies to line up for similar help. On Tuesday, he voted for the incentive package.

Howard, who founded his family's company in Jones County in the late 1960s, told lawmakers Monday that Howard Industries could develop new jobs in other states if Mississippi lawmakers didn't offer incentives. He said other states are interested, but he didn't name them.

Bob Rohrlack, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said if Howard falls short of employment goals, the state will take away $3,000 for each job that was not created. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove praised legislators for approving the expansion package.

"It's a great day, especially in the face of a national recession,'' he said.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck said, "It's a great day when we have an opportunity to support an existing industry.''

Rep. David Green, D-Gloster, said he voted against the incentive package because he wanted to send a message that southwest Mississippi needs economic development help.

Rep. Gregory Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, said he opposed the plan because it would give Howard Industries an unfair advantage over Kuhlman Electric Corp., a transformer maker that employs 400 in his district.

Paul Acheson, vice president and general manager of Kuhlman Electric's Crystal Springs transformer plant, told lawmakers Monday that there has been a slowdown in the demand for transformers. He said the multimillion dollar package for Howard would pose "a direct threat'' to Kuhlman.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, voted against an early version of the bill but supported the final version.

"I think we have some issues that need to be dealt with in addition to economic development,'' Dawkins said.

In a special session in late June, lawmakers approved a $68 million incentive package for Nissan to expand its plant that's under construction in Madison County.