May 4, 2023 - Tupelo, MS

by: Dennis Seid, Daily Journal

While 2022 presented its share of challenges, the Community Development Foundation still found a silver lining as it marked its 75th anniversary during its annual meeting Thursday.

For example, 12 new and expanded industries resulted in nearly 400 new jobs, and nearly $133 million in capital investment was logged. More than two dozen businesses also found nearly $15 million in cost savings with the CDF's help.

And the Tupelo region was once again named a top 10 micropolitan area for new and expanded industries in Site Selection magazine. The honor was the 13th time since 2005 Tupelo had been named to the list. 

"It wasn't as robust of a year as we're used to in new employment, and new payroll was down to $17.3 million, where we were in the past at $18 million and more," said CDF president and CEO David Rumbarger. "But we did save some money for our existing businesses. It wasn't a lost year, but it was a trying year."

It was most trying two days before Thanksgiving, when United/Lane Furniture abruptly ceased operations and laid off some 2,700 workers — including nearly 1,100 in Northeast Mississippi.

Rumbarger said the community responded quickly, as some 700 of those workers were offered jobs elsewhere from two CDF job fairs held in the weeks after the massive layoff.

"A lot of credit goes to the 46 businesses that offered jobs during that time," Rumbarger said. "Homestretch, Ashley and so many others helped pickup the slack."

Another challenge that happened just over a month ago was the temporary shutdown of the Cooper Tire plant after a tornado heavily damaged portions of the facility's roof. Some 1,700 workers aren't currently making tires, but Goodyear, the parent company of Cooper, said last week it will slowly restart operations in June. Employees are being paid even as the plant remains idle.

"Goodyear is the hero in this, stepping up and taking care of its employees," Rumbarger said. "The challenge now is getting the materials and the equipment in there and doing the repairs in a timely fashion."

Local, state and federal officials said after the April 1 tornado that they would provide whatever assistance Goodyear/Cooper needed to restart operations, and Rumbarger said that an undisclosed request has been made on behalf of Goodyear/Cooper to Jackson.

"We have made a request, and at this point it hasn't been fulfilled, but we're still hopeful and still working on options because it doesn't seem to fit in any buckets that the state has for funding," Rumbarger said. "For example, it didn't meet the criteria for public loss of $2 million to be declared a disaster, although it was a disaster for the community."

That challenge aside, Rumbarger said CDF is back to its pre-pandemic levels of activity as far as recruiting and hearing from new industries and businesses.

"Things aren't moving at a rapid pace like they were, but they are moving," he said.

With the Tupelo and Lee County more diversified than it has ever been, Rumbarger said there's no reason to be fearful.

"We're more balanced today," he said. "Twenty years ago, furniture manufacturing was more than 50% of the economy, and today it's about 20%. We've got automotive, consumer goods, General Atomics ... The balance is just so much better. Even with a national flu, we just get a bad cold."

Chris Bagley, the chairman of CDF, echoed those thoughts.

"This is a great community with great business leaders. We have ups and downs, but together we get through it," he said. "You see it even after COVID and the pandemic, a lot of successes, and even this year with the continued economic uncertainty, we had our best year ever with REACH."

REACH is CDF's annual membership drive, and the campaign this year hit 116% of its goal with 119 new members. Membership investment increased 4.5%, and CDF had 69 ribbon cuttings and held 46 events throughout the year.

"That's a testament to the community and the businesses who jumped in and made it all happen," Bagley said.

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