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Unique Beverage Industry in Panola County
By MARK H. STOWERS
Food, soft drinks and shaving cream all have at least one thing in common—they come in a can. In Panola County nearly five million cans are created every day for the beverage industry at Crown, Cork and Seal. The can making plant came to Batesville back in 1987 and put nearly 200 people to work. The plant has been cranking out beverage cans since day one. Human Resources Manager Garry Morrow explains more about the unique facility.
“We’re in the beverage division and we have the capability to make three different sizes, eight-ounce squat can like you get on an airline, 12-ounce and 16-ounce,” he says. “We’re a dual plant in that we make the tops of the cans as well. It’s very rare that you have both of those functions under the same roof.”
The plant has customers all around the globe. From beer to soda and many other types of drinks, Crown, Cork and Seal has at one time made them all. The overall company has 241 packaging plants and has 33,000 employees worldwide with a 2018 net sales figure of $11.2 billion.
“The average production is 4.6 million cans a day,” says Morrow. “We don’t have one distinct area that we ship to. Two days ago, we were making Canadian Molson (beer) cans. Today, we’re making the Halloween Mountain Dew cans. Not only do we manufacture the can, but we do the printing on the cans.”
Printing plates that are the size of the can are sent to the plant.
“It’s a lot like printing a t-shirt,” he says. “To screen print a t-shirt you move the screens, but here we move the can to the next screen or plate. We do about 2,000 cans a minute.”
Crown, Cork and Seal runs thousands of designs of cans each year.
“We change plates every day,” Morrow says. “We had six different designs for Molson, three American and three Canadian. We keep unique cans in our window. Since November, I’ve probably collected over 200 different cans.”
Morrow notes that each plant has a way of putting their own stamp on each can similar to how US money has insignia for each US mint where it’s made.
“Towards the bottom of the can near the bar code, you would see a crown with a series of numbers that will tell you when it was made, what line is was made on, what day it was made on and which machine it was made on,” Morrow says. “If you see a twelve on that number that means it was made in Batesville, Mississippi. We’re plant number twelve for Crown, Cork and Seal.”
The plant uses all aluminum for its beverage cans. Other plants within Crown, Cork and Seal make cans for food as well as aerosol and specialty cans such as metal tins for liquor, Altoid tins and even Pokémon metal tins.
The plant has brought stability for a number of families as they’ve kept the same job pretty much since the plant opened. Joe Azar, Director of Economic Development for the Panola Partnership in Panola County notes the plant is quite a blessing to the area.
“Once you get that job you keep it for life. The wages are amazing, but it’s hard work,” Azar says. “They have all these ways of making cans better and safer to drink out of. They know what they’re doing and make it a really good place to work.”
Morrow notes that “we don’t even measure turnover here. People don’t leave. But sixty percent of our employees can retire in the next five years. Most of our people started in 1987 with the plant’s opening. They grew up with this plant.”
In order to fill those upcoming openings, Crown, Cork and Seal is working with Northwest Community College to be part of the workforce training concourse located at Highway 6 and Highway 55 in the former Batesville Outlet Mall.
“We need to build that next generation of employees. Some of our machines take years to learn,” he says. “We’ve got to start figuring out how we’re going to train that next generation. We’re excited to partner with Joe (Azar) and Northwest.”
Helping build and maintain a stronger and more viable Panola County, one can at a time, Crown Cork and Seal.
By Angela Rogalski
Photos Courtesy of Mississippi Film Office
The Mississippi Film Office is committed to bringing more film and television production to the state. From location scouting and research, to pre-production help with casting, extras, crew, equipment and trouble-shooting during production and wrap, the Film Office and its director, Nina Parikh, are ready to help. Parikh’s objective is to assist in bolstering the state’s economy by showing the film industry what Mississippi has to offer when it comes to incentive programs, diverse locations and a history of moviemaking that is more than impressive.
In the 2019 legislative session, the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program was amended to again include a rebate on salaries of non-residents working in Mississippi,” Parikh says. “The current program returns a rebate on the following: twenty-five percent on expenditures with Mississippi vendors/businesses, twenty-five percent on non-resident salaries (as long as the production is partnered with a pre-approved Mississippi production entity), thirty percent on resident salaries, and five percent additional on the salary for any individual that is a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
The state’s rich history in moviemaking includes A Time to Kill, O, Brother Where Art Thou, The Help and a multitude of other great films. And with Mississippians such as Morgan Freeman, Tate Taylor (director of The Help), Oprah Winfrey, and many more state-born actors and professionals promoting the state, the future of Mississippi-made productions looks bright.
Parikh herself is a self-proclaimed Mississippian. While she lived in Indiana, Illinois and New York until she was around eleven-years-old, she grew up basically in Brandon, Miss. and feels that Mississippi is home.
Growing up, she had always loved photography and storytelling, and when one of her best friends in high school suggested she get into filmmaking, the course for her career was set. She graduated with a Radio, Television, and Film (emphasis on Film) degree from University of Southern Mississippi and she continued her film studies at New York University.
“I began as a freelance crew member, working all over Mississippi and our surrounding states,” she says. “I started in the entry production assistant position, found a focus in the camera department, and eventually started producing. I’ve produced both documentary and narrative projects including Sundance award winner Ballast which we filmed mostly in Yazoo County. I’m a co-founder of the Crossroads Film Society & Film Festival and Mississippi Film Alliance. I teach a film production class at Millsaps College and directed the Canton Young Filmmakers Workshop, a summer program for students ages eight to sevennteen. And I’ve been with the Mississippi Film Office for twenty-one years, serving as the director for the last two years.”
Parikh says that moviemaking in Mississippi had slowed some in the last two years, leading up to the change in legislation this past April.
“But immediately after that change, we have seen an increase in inquiries and location scouting since that time,” she adds. “So, it certainly has made a difference already. Production has changed over the last two decades and it continues to change. Equipment is more accessible, resources in general are also more accessible. There are people here in Mississippi who have access to camera equipment, editing software, and the means to learn about screenwriting, so you have independent filmmakers all over the world telling stories, so it isn’t just Hollywood. It’s both the studios and independent filmmakers. And those independent filmmakers are making content not just for a big theater screen, but for streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, even YouTube and Facebook, that have platforms now for storytelling.”
With content providers all over the world and platforms that are as diverse as the filmmakers, Parikh says that having an incentive to bring them to Mississippi, and also to encourage local storytellers, is important and effective.
Parikh adds a new Tate Taylor movie was finished recently in Natchez called Breaking News in Yuba County. “And Tate’s goal is to make as many of his film and television productions that he’s involved with, here in Mississippi. He’s from Jackson, Miss. and we’re very lucky to have his dedication to the state, his love of the state.”
The Dinner Party, directed by Miles Doleac, who’s based in Hattiesburg, is another movie that was just wrapped up in the state. And a first for Mississippi is a feature that Parikh is hopeful will get underway soon since some casting has already been done in the state, called Blue Bayou. It will film on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“It’s a unique story that’s written and directed by Justin Chon, who is an actor that was a part of the Twilight series,” Parikh adds. “It will hopefully begin this fall. They’re specifically looking for actors who are of Vietnamese or Korean descent and they hope to find those people in Mississippi. And it’s a first for the state because Blue Bayou’s lead character is written as an American with Korean heritage. So, we’re very excited.”
By Charlotte Buchanan
Scott Barber is a native of New York, has lived in Germantown, TN for the past eleven years, but spends each day promoting the Delta area in his position as Regional President of Caesar’s Entertainment and volunteer Chairman of the Tourism Commission.
In addition to his position as Regional President, overseeing Horseshoe Tunica and Tunica Roadhouse, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel, as well as Harrah’s North in Kansas City, Barber takes time to serve on many boards for non-profit organizations. “It has been my honor to work with the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, as well as United Way. Currently, I am chairman of the Tunica Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Tourism Commission.” he says. Barber is the former Chairman of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association and the former President of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Barber feels that the gaming industry has made a very positive impact on the Mississippi Delta. “Our industry continues to positively impact the Delta by providing jobs as well as entertainment options to attract out of state visitors. According to the Mississippi Gaming Commission, Mississippi Delta casinos in the Northern and Central regions saw yearly 374,000 out of state visitors and employed nearly 18,000 people in the month of June alone”, Barber says.
Though Barber is not a native Deltan, he is a strong believer in its resources. “The Delta is rich in resources that can be used in many different ways The land itself has long been used as a great resource for farming. The natural compliment to the land in the Delta is the people and culture. A strong workforce is a valuable commodity and I believe the Delta region is known as a strong, resilient, working region,” he says.
Barber believes that his involvement with the Tunica Tourism Commission and the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association is contributing to improvements in the Delta area. “We work with other boards and their members to lead decisions that affect commerce and tourism in Tunica We work to continue improving our offerings and position in the national gaming and tourism market. This is to ensure that Tunica is a desirable and vibrant destination. In turn, lodging and entertainment dollars are brought in which helps to employ Delta residents and fund city and state operating budget,” he commented.
Barber holds an MBA from the University of North Carolina a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Administration from the University of Nevada, as well as an Associate of Arts degree in Hotel Administration from Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smith, New York.
The twenty-eight-year veteran of the gaming industry is always seeking ways to enhance the business. He was successful in rebranding the Sheraton Tunica into the Tunica Roadhouse, as well as securing a partnership with Air Tran Airways to provide commercial airline service to Tunica. He is a tireless worker for his industry which, at the same time, brings improvements for the Delta.
By Angela Rogalski
Cultivation of industrial hemp was legalized under federal law in December 2018, and while the plant was technically legalized, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet approved regulations for its production. Hemp is derived from a plant similar to marijuana, yet only contains a small amount of THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana. The House bill legalizing industrial hemp would require any plant grown not to exceed 0.3 percent THC.
Brent Brasher is president and CEO of Kengro Corporation in Charleston. Brasher has been growing kenaf, a once relatively unheard of fiber for Mississippi Delta farmers, since the 1980s. With his wife, Gabriela, they have been growing and processing kenaf into very successful oil absorbent products.
Today, along with kenaf and other crops, Kengro processes industrial hemp. Brasher got into the industrial hemp business through his overseas partnerships.
“My wife and I farm in Tallahatchie and Leflore Counties,” Brasher says. “We grow soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, and kenaf. And kenaf is a fiber crop, in the same family as cotton. With the industrial hemp, I basically got into importing it because I have partners in Europe and Australia that were importing our product, which was just made from kenaf. They were growing hemp in Australia and The Netherlands, so we decided to bring in the hemp hurd, which is the inside part of the hemp plant, for animal bedding.”
Brasher adds that they began by importing the hemp hurd to their facility in Charleston, where they processed it to make the animal bedding. Today they also process the entire stalk, not just the hurd.
“It comes to us in whole-stalk form and we separate it, grind it, size it, clean it, bale it, and bag it.”
Brasher says there are many types of hemp grown, but industrial hemp is grown more like the regular crops he already cultivates.
“There are many types of hemp, but the industrial hemp has nothing to do with CBD or THC,” he says. “It’s a vegetative plant that grows very tall. You plant it early and harvest the entire stalk, chopping it up with a forage chopper. With the other types of hemp, they’re grown more like the vegetable production business, with a lot of hand labor involved. With the CBD, the seeds are planted or cloned in a greenhouse where they are then transplanted in the fields. But industrial hemp is for the most part planted like every other traditional crop we grow.”
Brasher says the same group of business partners he began with in Australia are also in the industrial hemp and CBD hemp business in Kentucky. And because they do not have a processing facility for the industrial hemp, Kengro has been doing some processing for them.
“Basically our separation facility divides the inner part of the plant from the outer part,” he continues. “It’s the same as we do with kenaf. After we process the industrial hemp, we send it back to them in Kentucky. We do not grow our own hemp because legally we can’t do it yet in Mississippi.”
While Brasher believes there is a profitable future in processing industrial hemp at Kengro, and in even growing it someday, it may not be the salvation many Delta farmers believe it to be.
“In my opinion, it’s like any other new, startup business that comes along,” he says. “A lot of people will make it and a lot of people won’t. There’s not a big windfall for every farmer out there, it’s just not going to happen. Number one, we’re late to the game. It’s going to be hard to catch up to those guys who have already established markets. With the industrial hemp markets, such as the automobile industry, there are a lot of players in the game that use hemp, but from a world supply standpoint, there’s not really a huge shortage of hemp. There’s really a surplus of hemp, just as there is with other commodities. As I tell all of my farmer friends, there is an opportunity, but don’t think this is the salvation of your farming operation.”
Brasher says as far as setting the regulations for hemp production in Mississippi, the newly created Hemp Cultivation Task Force will soon give recommendations to the legislature. It will be up to the Task Force whether or not there will be a hemp production next year in Mississippi.
“If you look at CBD production, the farmers that have experience with extensive labor, migrant and otherwise, will be the ones in my opinion to take advantage of legalization to grow. CBD production is a hand-intensive crop. Farmers who aren’t geared up to have enough labor to do that type of cultivation will have an uphill learning curve, for sure. On the other hand, industrial hemp is just like a traditional crop. If it were legal, this year I would have probably planted 75 to 100 acres of industrial hemp. Personally, I’m not interested in the CBD side of hemp; I see the capital that it took my Kentucky friends to get into it. But I am for legalizing the production of hemp, I’m not sure why the state didn’t do it three years ago. I just tell my fellow farmers to be cautious, it will be profitable for some and not for others.”
Find more information at https://www.kengro.com
By Jack Criss
Andy Taggart decided that the time was right. It might have seemed like a last minute decision, coming as it did on the qualifying deadline date of March 1. But Taggart had actually been pondering the run for Mississippi Attorney General for some time.
“I had almost run four years ago for AG,” Taggart says, “because it’s truly the only statewide office I have any interest in at this point in my career. And, after long consideration with my wife, Karen, I knew that the time was now and that I was ready to enter the race with a newfound passion and sense of purpose.”
The most prominent part of that purpose—as well as the reason Taggart waited as long as he did to announce his run—was the recovery and reflection he and his family were still going through after the tragic death of Taggart’s son in 2012.
“Losing a child under any circumstance is a terrible, traumatic experience for a parent,” Taggart says. “But our son’s taking his own life due to the scourge that has affected, and still affects, so many other people gave a greater sense of purpose to me to run for the state’s Attorney General’s office.”
That scourge is substance abuse and drug addiction—and Taggart has made combatting this ever-growing problem one of the priorities of his current campaign.
“Of course, illicit drug abuse is itself an illegal activity,” Taggart observes, “but the worst of it is that it also tears apart communities families and, I believe, is the biggest earthly challenge facing Mississippi today: combatting the flow of illegal and dangerous drugs into our state and the handling of this epidemic—which is most certainly what the problem is now.
“I just have not seen our current Attorney General use his office to fight the drug issue as I would,” Taggart says.. “In my opinion, not enough existing resources have been allocated or reconfigured to help our law enforcement officers, the court system and counselors to hit the predators as hard as they need to be hit.”
One of the other major points of distinction for Taggart is how Mississippi has and should handle public corruption.
“Too often the state has been passive in investigating public corruption cases, allowing the Feds to take the lead and then coming in after the initial work was done,” Taggart claims. “The Chris Epps fiasco was primarily a Federal-led bust, as just one example. It’s been years since Mississippi has made any substantial bust of public corruption on its own and I believe we need to prosecute those cases on our own. Tips come in regularly and must be pursued by local and state prosecutors.”
As a prominent Republican conservative, Taggart has apparently surprised many Mississippi pundits and editorialists by supporting the push for a new state flag, a stance he has lately received a good deal of press about.
“I don’t believe the current state flag represents an accurate snapshot of Mississippi,” Taggart argues. “It’s time we look forward instead of hanging on to the past.”
Bringing an illustrious and well-documented background of experience to his current campaign, Taggart is hard-pressed when asked what he considers the highlight of his long career.
“Well,” he reflects with a chuckle, “I think I can truthfully say I’ve done more than most when it comes to political, legal and government experience. I was honored to serve as the late Governor Kirk Fordice’s Chief of Staff and Counsel and to go on to work with Governors Barbour and Bryant (when the latter was State Auditor) on a number of high profile issues such as the Voter ID litigation as well as the WorldCom case and the review of Department of Corrections contracts and procurement in the wake of the Epps scandal. Plus, my years in private law practice have certainly been both prolific and rewarding to me—In the past twenty-four months alone, I have been privileged to argue before the Mississippi Supreme Court, the state Court of Appeals and, in June, again, before our Supreme Court” Taggart adds.
Beyond his legal work, Taggart has also co-authored two popular books on Mississippi politics with friend and (liberal) political commentator, Jere Nash, as well as a recurring column for an online travel magazine.
Regarding the Mississippi Delta, a region Taggart says he holds in high regard and with great fondness, as a candidate he has already committed himself to dealing with the flooding problems so prevalent here, especially those the South Delta confronts on an all-too-regular basis.
“The Yazoo Backwater Pumps must be built,” Taggart states emphatically. “It’s unconscionable that they have not yet been put in place. It’s a crisis that the federal government has dropped the ball on for years while the people of the Lower Delta, in particular, have to live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. With them, it’s not ‘if’ it will flood again; unfortunately it’s ‘when’ it will flood again and for how long—and that is unacceptable.”
So far in the campaign, Taggart says he has been overwhelmed by the support and well-wishes of so many voters throughout the state.
“We have far exceeded our fundraising goals,” he says, as one example, “and the moral support Karen and I have received has truly been humbling.”
By Becky Gillette
The population of the Mississippi Delta continues to decline, according to figures from the U.S. Census comparing populations in 2010 to 2018. Population losses in the largest cities in the Delta ranged from a decline of 14.8 percent in Clarksdale to 5.1 percent in Yazoo City.
One major reason for the population loss in the Delta is an increase in ag and manufacturing technology that has led to fewer jobs, says Dr. Glendscene Williams, director, Center for Business and Entrepreneurial Research, Delta State University (DSU). Nevertheless, she says the standard of living of people currently living in these counties is improving and economic growth is occurring.
“So, what the counties need is a comparative advantage that requires lots of workers,” Williams says. “It’s impossible to know exactly what that will be, but it’s safe to assume that it will require workers who have a deep understanding of technology. The best strategy for today is to prepare the current and future work forces in those counties to work well with technology.
“Therefore, from an educational stance, we cannot miss out on the opportunities before us. We have the opportunity to create an entrepreneurial spirit in our Delta counties. We must invest more in innovation and technology training and research and development to support the demands of our new economy, and expose our youth at younger ages to the economics of how the world works.”
Chuck Espy says since he became mayor of Clarksdale two years ago, his administration has worked to be proactive by enhancing quality of life activities and working to cater to eighteen to thirty year-olds and give them opportunities that they have not had traditionally.
“So far, we have been very successful,” Espy says. “We have invested time and effort into entrepreneurship for this age range of young adults, and we have entered into public-private partnerships to give more quality of life activities in our city. We are getting ready to break ground on a sports and convention center with an aquatic center, fitness center, and ballfields. We just did the groundbreaking for our Clarksdale Tourism Center\Wingstop franchise that will create twenty-five additional jobs.”
Espy says more than 300 new jobs have been created in the city in the past two years. And the city is being very proactive in helping entrepreneurs open small businesses.
“So far we have seen a dramatic improvement in retaining population that has traditionally gravitated to others states,” Espy says.
Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell was surprised at the decline in population, and says the 2020 Census will be more accurate showing what is going on with the city’s population.
“A year or so ago, we heard some comparisons that Cleveland was the not only not losing population, but was gaining population,” Nowell says. “We have folks moving into Cleveland from smaller towns and rural areas in the Delta. We have more building permits issued now than in the history of Cleveland. There are new subdivisions and hotels being built in Cleveland.”
He sees the city’s strengths including a viable downtown that people enjoy visiting, the jobs and activities associated with DSU, and industries such as Baxter Healthcare that is currently doing an $80-million expansion expected to add sixty to seventy jobs. The school system and hospital are also big job and revenue creators.
Tom Gresham of Indianola, the new president of Delta Council, has a priority of addressing creative ways to combat depopulation.
“We’ve got to get more young people involved in shaping the future of the Delta,” Gresham says. “The Delta has so many things going for it and so many assets.”
Gresham says more good jobs are key to stemming the population decline. That is why he is so excited about the Delta Strong project of the Delta Council that is working to make sure workers are trained and ready when needed by industry by providing training through the ACT Work Ready Communities program.
When a company expresses interest in locating or expanding in the Delta, they can be shown on a map how many Work Ready employees of various skill levels are certified in a thirty-mile radius.
“We have a great relationship with our community colleges and their training programs,” Gresham says. “They are working so well with our economic developers and Delta Strong to provide training needed for our existing workforce and new businesses that are moving in.”
Announcements of two major new industries locating in the Delta are expected soon.
“I really look forward to that,” Gresham says. “That is something that will continue.”
Total population projections for the future from the State Data Center of Mississippi predict continued variation in overall population numbers, even within the Delta region. Some counties will likely continue to have declining population numbers while others will increase.
“When looking at county-level net-migration, it is important to consider that people can move between counties in the same region,” says John J. Green, Ph.D., director, Center for Population Studies at the School of Law, The University of Mississippi. “The sociological, economic, and community development literature strongly suggests that people make decisions on where to live for a wide range of reasons. Perceived quality of education, job opportunities, and amenities related to quality of life are of critical importance.”
Green says there is a “spiraling dynamic” to the relationship between population and development. As people leave an area, for example, there is more pressure on services with a smaller economic base, thus driving more challenges.
“Although there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for all communities dealing with population declines, it is important to attend to education, business retention and expansion, and both the physical and social infrastructure needed for people to have a high quality of life,” Green says. “Additionally, we should remember that places with increasing population sizes face their own challenges as well.”
By Angela Rogalski
What defines “making it” professionally? Is it when you’re at the top of your field of expertise and feel that sense of personal and professional satisfaction? Is it going that extra mile in your career and your peers and superiors recognize your endeavors? Or is a little of both and a lot of support and motivation from your friends and family along the way? Many would say all of the above. In fact, some Delta leaders did just that, plus added their own comments of love and commitment to the people and places where they work and live.
As president of Delta State University, Bill LaForge enjoys a long history with the school as it is also his alma mater.
“Growing up in Cleveland and around the Delta State campus had a major impact on my upbringing and certainly influenced my career decisions, including my presidency,” LaForge says. “My mother and father were huge positive influences on me, and provided a nurturing, supportive environment. Delta State was my college of choice, and my father was my academic advisor. So I wound up with the best and toughest professors. Otherwise, he pretty much left me alone to be a typical college student.
“I enjoyed four terrific years at Delta State, which provided me with a great mix of academics and extracurricular activities, including student government, fraternity life, and athletics. The skills I acquired on this campus have travelled with me throughout my career at every stage. I graduated from Delta State with a feeling of accomplishment and preparedness that served me well in my later pursuits in graduate school and in my career. For me, it all started at Delta State.”
LaForge stays motivated in his position through a sense of honor and dedication to Delta State and its students.
“I’ve always been a self-starter, but various types of motivation and inspiration also help fuel my drive. Beyond the honor and privilege of serving the university as president, I feel a sense of service obligation that brings professional gratification and inspires me. I believe in servant leadership, in building quality, in striving for excellence, and in helping to ensure that my alma mater continues to be as successful as possible for many years to come.”
He adds that everything that has come before in his professional path has helped him as president of DSU.
“While becoming president of Delta State was certainly a ninety degree turn in my career, essentially everything I have done in my career track helped prepare me for what I am doing today,” LaForge says. “The accumulated experiences I gained at every career stop certainly advise and influence my thinking, actions, and decision-making every day.”
Senator Willie Simmons has represented Senate District 13, Bolivar, Sunflower and Tallahatchie counties for twenty-six years. Simmons’ political journey began with his involvement in education.
“In 1975, I was involved in my community’s (Cleveland) civic club organization and they were looking for someone to run for the schoolboard,” Simmons says. “So I ran for the schoolboard and was successful. And because of that, I walked into the political world by helping others and getting elected. And then in 1992, I decided I could make a difference as senator and wanted to run. I thought I could execute change through a more diverse group of individuals with different mindsets. If I could bring my experience and knowledge to the table, maybe we could have change and find an improved path for our political system. I was first elected in 1993.”
Simmons grew up in Utica, Miss. in Hinds County, where he and his family sharecropped cotton. Growing up in the 1960s, Simmons says he never envisioned himself as a U.S. senator someday.
“African Americans in Mississippi during those days were not part of the political arena,” Simmons says. “It wasn’t until I finished college that I even considered that an African American could be elected to political office. So, because of that it wasn’t anything I ever dreamed of becoming. It is very rewarding for me to look back and see how far we have come as a country and a state, and how the races have come together to work for the good of the people of Mississippi. That is quite an accomplishment for us all.”
Mayor Steve Rosenthal of Indianola says in his case it was a dedication to the city of Indianola and its residents.
“In the mid-2000s, the former mayor and board of aldermen doubled their salaries,” Rosenthal explains. “I felt that if they were doing their job for the money, they were not who we needed running our city. I packed the boardroom for almost a year at every meeting but was unable to get them to reverse the raise. All the members of the board that voted for the raise and the mayor were defeated the next election. The first meeting of my first term my salary was reduced by $12,000.00 dollars.”
Rosenthal adds that he feels excitement and is galvanized into action by the citizens of Indianola.
“When I know that I have helped move our citizens up to a better quality of life and improved our city for everyone, that motivates me.”
As far as envisioning himself as mayor of Indianola in days past, he was always committed to community service, but not really in a highly visual capacity.
“ I have always worked as a volunteer in my community but mostly behind the scenes, so I never envisioned city government. I closed the Family Department Store “ Ben Fried’s” in 2002 after three generations and 89 years in business. I knew that I could not just sit around but wanted to make a difference. It is more than I imagined, more work, but much more satisfying than expected.”
Chrissy Garner is advertising and marketing manager for the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. Garner realized early on that sometimes being in the right place at the right time can lead one to their own destiny.
“My first real job out of college was at an advertising agency in Little Rock, Ark. in the media department,” Garner says. “I eventually worked my way up to create a media buy for our client, Tunica, Miss. At one point I left that agency, but eventually came back to work as the account executive on the Tunica account. Eventually my agency and the client decided to split ways and almost eleven years ago, I moved to Tunica to become the in-house Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau marketing manager.”
Garner adds that staying motivated in her position is easy because she loves her job and finds it very rewarding. “It’s always exciting to know that something you designed or a project you managed influenced or encouraged a visitor to break out of their everyday to visit Tunica.”
Executive Director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, Jon Levingston, was a businessman in Clarksdale for many years and enjoyed the professional and personal relationships that he had cultivated with the citizens. So, being appointed executive director of the Chamber was both an honor and a great fit for him.
“For thirty years, I had the privilege of managing my family’s business interests in the Delta. I sold our primary business, Levingston Furniture Company in 2012. After working on a variety of projects, including contributing essays to a book about one of Mississippi’s great visual artists, Marie Hull, I was honored to be appointed the executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Authority of Coahoma County.”
As far as his continued motivation where his present job is concerned, Levingston says that one is easy. Put simply, he loves his job.
“Our region of the state has suffered depopulation for several decades,” he explains. “Depopulation results in fewer resources for our community, including less money in city and county government coffers to repair streets, sewers, to invest in education, and other necessary quality of life investments. Only jobs stop depopulation. Bringing jobs to my community and strengthening Clarksdale economically is a challenge that motivates me every single day. I love that challenge.”
Beth Stevens is the executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce.
“I grew up in Grenada, but moved to Greenwood as an adult,” Stevens says. “I stayed at home awhile, but decided I really needed to get out into the community. My background is in journalism, so I took a job at the newspaper, The Greenwood Commonwealth, as a receptionist since at the time that was the only opening they had. Eventually, I became the Lifestyles editor at the paper and did that for a number of years.”
Stevens adds that she left the paper and opened a retail store, which she did for a number of years, but ended up going back to the paper in her same position, Lifestyles editor.
“While I was at the paper the second time, the position of executive director of the Chamber became available,” she says. “I knew it was an interesting job because I had been writing about it for years through events that were happening around town and other activities the Chamber was associated with. So, I went and interviewed for the job and I got it and I have been in my present position for fifteen years.”
Stevens says that everything she did prior to the Chamber only helped her in her current position. “I was so familiar with the Chamber and what they did through my writing about them that it was a great fit for me. And I had been in the community professionally for so many years that I had a relationship with Greenwood and its citizens, so it worked out wonderfully.”
Mathews Film Company originated in Greenville, but has now moved to Oxford, Miss and specializes in commercial, industrial, documentary, and film production. Owner Jamie Mathews is a Greenville native and got into the business through his love of films as a youth.
“As a teenager, I always wanted to be an actor,” Mathews says. “I was born and raised in Greenville, and after attending Delta State, I decided to move to Los Angeles and started working as an extra in films. I was totally enthralled with the whole idea of filmmaking, all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I worked on a movie with Clint Eastwood; I was an extra for three weeks for him in the movie “Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil,” and I watched him work, he directed the movie, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Mathews took a job with an independent production company while he was in Los Angeles, but decided to move back to Greenville in 2001.
“I slowly started doing production in the Delta, met my wife Heather and got married,” he says. “And in 2007 we both started the company and we’ve been working doing commercials, music videos and documentaries ever since. My wife Heather is our producer, so it’s both of us that made this happen.”
Mathews says that as far as goals for the company, it’s to be Mississippi’s filmmaker.
“Not that we’re the only ones who do it in our state, but we do promote Mississippi,” he adds. “And we love doing Mississippi stories.”
By Becky Gillette
In the heyday of gaming in Mississippi in 2007, Mississippi River casinos had combined gross revenues of $1.6 billion. That was when there were few gaming operations in neighboring states. The increased competition in recent years has led to the closure of two casinos in Tunica, and a third, Resorts Casino Tunica, is closing this month.
Mississippi Gaming Commissioner Tom Gresham, Indianola, said he thinks the Mississippi River casinos are doing a good job in how they operate and how they market themselves.
“The pie is just getting smaller as more casinos are opening up in surrounding states,” Gresham says. “I think sports betting has given the casinos an opportunity to market themselves more to customers and use sports betting to bring more traffic into their casinos.”
Gresham said the Mississippi Gaming Commission does a good job regulating the industry.
“We have a great team,” Gresham says. “I’m really proud of Allen (Godfrey) and all the regulators and employees of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.”
While the decreases in revenue have been concerning, things may have leveled off. Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said gross revenues for the Tunica region were down $3 million from 2017 to 2018, which is really flat when you are talking about almost $600 million in total revenues.
“Lower in Greenville, Natchez and Vicksburg, the casinos were actually up about $1 million,” Godfrey says. “Overall, the Delta was about neutral from 2018 over 2017. In the Delta, the casinos continue to have their challenges. But they are attacking them to the best of their ability, and I believe the Delta region will always have a strong, competitive gaming attraction.”
Mississippi overall had gaming revenues of $2.9 billion in 2007. Godfrey says with the expansion of gaming all over the U.S., those numbers aren’t likely to be seen again.
“There is just not the same gaming footprint out there,” Godfrey says. “You have West Memphis in Tennessee and Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark., now allowing full-scale commercial gaming. Tennessee is also expected to soon have online sports betting. All of these are challenges that have an impact on the state of gaming in Mississippi. Those are things that will directly impact the Tunica market, especially.
“No one here can control what happens outside the State of Mississippi. What the operators have done and continue to do is make their product offering better than their competitors. To no fault of their own, they can’t control expansion in other states.”
Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), agrees that the Tunica market has somewhat stabilized.
“We had a down economy in 2008 followed by the flood in 2011,” Franklin says. “The market from the revenue standpoint has been in a steady decline. But in the fall of 2018, we saw two major things that impacted the market. There was the advent of sports betting that coincided with the opening of the 1-269 from 1-40 over to Highway 61. The new amenity of sports betting was successful in bringing a younger demographic into the market, especially on football weekends in the fall.”
The opening of 1-269 has led to increased visitation from Birmingham, Huntsville and Nashville.
“It is a lot easier to get here,” Franklin says. “The other thing we are doing in the market is the CVB and our casino properties have joined with the Mississippi Economic Council in conducting a study of the Tunica market with the goal of educating our elected leadership in Jackson and statewide on the changes that have taken place overall in the U.S. gaming market since the advent of gaming in Tunica and Mississippi.”
Franklin said the question is, twenty-eight years into the game, how does Mississippi remain competitive in the changing gaming landscape?
“There were 900 commercial casinos in the U.S. last year,” Franklin says. “Every American is within an easy drive of a casino. We are hopeful this study will begin a conversation with our elected leaders in the state to come up with ideas, suggestions and solutions to stabilize the market for next twenty-five years and what that might look like.”
Franklin says they are working to be proactive in trying to address the situation today, while also working for a secure future.
“The gaming industry has been a major employer of Mississippi residents, and it has created hundreds of millions in tax revenues to the state and local governments,” Franklin says. “With these changes, how do we remain competitive? That is the ultimate question.”
By Becky Gillette
In thirty-three years of farming, Clay Adcock has never missed planting a cotton crop on his farm in the Holly Bluff area. But this year, about 500,000 acres of land in the Yazoo backwater area have been flooded for several months.
“Tell me anywhere else in the U.S. where 500,000 acres have been flooded for three months, and we would have some high officials coming here to see what could be done to help,” Adcock says. “We have been ignored because we are a rural area. But we are an important rural area with major productivity and a lot of wildlife. We have small towns with many good people who are really struggling.
“We missed planting a corn crop this year. I assumed I might be able to plant cotton afterwards, but it is looking like we are going to miss a cotton crop this year. You can’t unwind that investment in cotton equipment in one year. I am one of many farmers in the same situation.”
Adcock has a levee around his house to keep the water out, and his son has been living with him because power had to be disconnected because of water surrounding his house. Many residents are affected with a ripple effect on the local economy.
“You have a lot of people who are not farmers, but depend on the revenue from farmers and wildlife enthusiasts in this area,” Adcock says. “It is not all agriculture. You have enough instability in the Delta, and this was something entirely preventable. The government will probably come out with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to help with some of this, but this is money the government didn’t have to spend. This could have been prevented.”
In 1941, Congress authorized the Yazoo Pumps Backwater Project that involved building levees and gates, and then using large pumps to drain the area when water backs up because of localized flooding combined with flooding on the Mississippi River. The levees and gates were built, but in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed the pumps after lawsuits from environmental groups. The primary reason for vetoing the pumps was allegations that it would destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands.
Adcock said the campaign against the pumps was misguided, and that failing to build the pumps has not only caused great economic harm to the area, but has also damaged wildlife and the wetlands.
“All the wetlands are now under three to ten feet of water, which changes the classification of wetlands,” Adcock says. “The EPA is actually in violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act by allowing the wetlands to flood and change the classifications of those wetlands. There are hundreds of different types of wetlands. You and I, the general public, cannot alter those wetlands without a permit. The EPA, by vetoing the pumps, has allowed our wetlands to altered. Instead of being flooded for days or weeks, now they are flooded for months. Our entire Delta National Forest, 250,000 acres, is under water. Most of the wildlife has died. We have pictures of the dead animals, including bears. It is a filthy, nasty mess caused by the EPA.”
The prolonged flooding is taking an emotional toll.
“You just can’t imagine how it wears on you, the constant worry,” he says. “It doesn’t make it any better when you feel like you are being ignored. Our congressional delegation has been very supportive. The governor has been very supportive. But we need more than that. Mississippi is the only state along the Mississippi River that doesn’t have a backwater pump. There are twenty-two other pumping structures within a 200-mile radius of us.”
Another farmer, John Phillips, has been living in the area since he was born in 1949 and has been farming it since 1973. He says floods are becoming more frequent and lasting longer.
“About seventy-five percent of our land is under water, and it is questionable whether it will be planted or not,” Phillips says. “The flooding we are experiencing is new and different. I don’t even remember a flood prior to 1973. In 1979, the levee was completed at Steele Bayou and it was supposed to solve our problems when the Yazoo Pumps were installed. Without the pumps in place, we are in a basin with no way to get the water out.”
It is stressful for everyone in the area.
“If people in our community can’t plant a crop in 2019, they cannot survive with no revenue,” Phillips says. “A farmer who can’t farm doesn’t last long. There is only one solution to the problem in the Yazoo backwater area and that is the pumps. That is just a fact. People say look for other alternatives, but there are none.”
He is also concerned that people will leave the area and the community will die.
“Flooding is not beneficial for anything,” Phillips says. “It is devastating.”
All kinds of businesses that depend on trade with farmers are impacted adversely. And so are homeowners. Ann Dahl retired from a job as preventative maintenance coordinator at Grand Gulf Nuclear Station a year and a half ago, and bought a house in Eagle Lake.
“I knew nothing about backwater flooding,” Dahl says. “When the water started coming up in February, we didn’t expect how high it was going to get. I started researching at that time to find out how we got here. I looked at thirty years of history on the Yazoo Backwater Project, and I looked at both sides, people for the pumps and people against it. What I found out was appalling to me. This isn’t a natural disaster. It is a manmade disaster. It could have all been avoided if we had let the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) do their job.”
Dahl says the COE spent millions of man hours studying the solution, yet was blocked by EPA’s veto.
“The EPA says it could potentially damage 200,000 acres of wildlife,” Dahl says. “First off, it is only 189,000 acres and 125,000 are classified as temporarily flooding, to be flooded a few days to a few weeks at the beginning of the grow season. But they are now actually flooded for months at a time. EPA has done more harm to the land than the pumps. The pumps used as designed would protect the wetlands.”
Dahl also takes issue with environmental groups that said it would take 3,000 years to pay for the pumps.
“Ag loses alone since the veto are $373 million, and that doesn’t include people’s personal loses,” Dahl says. “I’m one of lucky ones. Water is not in my house, but I have to take 1.5-hour detour one way get to town. My boathouse and pier, banks and yard are completely under water and will be for at least a month to six weeks before the backwater will have gone down enough to let water out at Eagle Lake. None of these losses are covered by insurance. A conservative estimate to repair the damages of our Eagle Lake properties will be at least $7 million dollars.”
Dahl wishes people could see the situation.
“It isn’t like a tornado or hurricane that is over quickly and then you can start the rebuild process,” she says. “It will be months literally before the lake is back to normal and we can start accessing damage and rebuilding. “
Peter Nimrod, chief engineer, Mississippi Levee Board, Greenville, said this is the worse flood event since the backwater levees and drainage structure were completed. He agrees the solution is the Yazoo Pumps. And he says that is economically justifiable.
“The project in 2007 was estimated to cost $220 million,” Nimrod says. “But since 2008 when EPA vetoed the project, the pumps would have prevented $373 million in damages and that is not including 2019. You could have paid for the pumps and had a net gain of $153 million.”
There is hope with the current federal administration.
“We have new EPA leadership, and we do have some new information in the past ten years on wetlands,” Nimrod says. “The COE is working with the EPA going over the new data, and relooking at this project to see if there is a way that EPA could overturn that veto.”
In the meantime, it continues to rain heavily in the Mississippi River watershed. This past winter saw the highest rainfall totals in the contiguous U.S. in recorded history. Ten states in the watershed reported the most rain between March 1, 2018 to Feb. 1, 2019 in recorded history.
“The excess rainfall has been very widespread,” Nimrod says. “It was way up there as one of the wettest years by far. This portion of the Mississippi Delta averages fifty-fourinches per year. Last year, it was in the mid-70s. The problem with a backwater flood is it comes up very slowly and it is very slow to go away. There hasn’t been much relief in the past four weeks, and the next four weeks doesn’t look any better. The river is not expected to drop off in the next four weeks.”
When this article was written in mid-May, torrential rainfalls were continuing to be seen in the Midwest. The forecast was for above normal precipitation to continue. Nimrod said while the river stays several feet above flood stage, it prevents a significant amount of backwater getting out of the Delta.
Ag losses are huge, but only one part of the picture.
“We still have homes flooded or holding water back with ring levees,” Nimrod says. “You have roads and highways under water. And they are not going to dry up over the next month. We have a real issue. It is not just ag lands, but access to homes, school and work. Everything is difficult when you have to figure out how to drive on dry pavement to get somewhere. It is quite frustrating.”