Dean Barber

There Must be Something in the Water

In Places on November 10, 2013 at 6:45 am

MERIDIAN, Miss. – Now you can argue with some justification that all places have their own signature, their own ways of being. And as a site selection/economic development consultant, I have come to appreciate this.

But I am hard-pressed to tell you of another place like Mississippi. Sure, the states that border it do have certain similarities, but Mississippi is distinct. Here I am constantly reminded of what once was and what could be.  As someone who values history and believes that we can learn from it, I like that. I like that a lot.

I do no justice to the people of Mississippi in trying to neatly summarize their history as it cannot be done in this short space. But I think it is fundamental to know that the vast majority of Mississippians, both black and white, suffered from societal and government controls that were slapped onto them.

The black experience in Mississippi derived from just horrible circumstances. African Americans endured a brutal system of slavery that denied them even the most basic human rights. Slaves were robbed of any dignity by not even being granted personhood. In the eyes of the law, they were property, pure and simple. Things hardly got better under Jim Crow.

Ironically, most white Mississippians also lived a life of hardscrabble and saw no benefit from black oppression. These white yeoman farmers were duped into believing that keeping blacks “in their place” somehow ensured their own welfare if not superiority.

Those doing the duping, the elites who controlled both commerce and politics, were largely the planter class. It was all too important for them for this system of control, of both blacks and poor whites, to remain in place as it was quite profitable.

From the Civil War of the 1860s to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the conflict was whether this perverse system of control, fortified by laws and regulations, could be maintained. Many blacks and some poor whites said essentially “screw this” and left, migrating to northern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, to find work in factories.

Through it all, maybe because of it all, an unimaginable explosion of writers and musicians emerged in Mississippi. The writers included William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham, Margaret Walker Alexander; Eudora Welty and Shelby Foote to name just a few.

As Mississippi is the home of the blues, seminal musicians emerged, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Bessie Smith, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, and Charlie Patton. They were followed by subsequent generations of Mississippian musicians whose ranks included Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Jimmy Buffett and Faith Hill. And then there was the singing brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers. More on him later.

Looking at all this literary and musical talent, you have to wonder if there is something in the water that brings it out.

Their voices all speak of an intertwined fabric of Mississippi – hardship and hope, despair and redemption. And the past was ever present in their songs and stories.  William Faulkner said it best in Requiem for a Nun, set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A $44 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is planned for in Meridian. I saw the spot for the 58,500-square-foot venue during our bus tour. You can bet I’ll be coming back when it opens in 2017. I hope to be back before then.

The Flying Keys

Soon after arriving in Meridian on Wednesday, I boarded a bus with other site selection consultants and was taken to the local airport, called Key Field, where I learned, surprise, surprise that there was a 140-acre industrial site available for aviation purposes.

More memorable was learning about two brothers from which the airport was named. Fred and Al Key lifted off from the Meridian airport in a borrowed airplane on June 4, 1935. For the next 27 days, they flew around Meridian without ever landing, as food and fuel were supplied via a long flexible tube from another attending aircraft.

The non-stop endurance flight of the “Flying Keys” lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes. Their borrowed airplane, named Ole Miss, is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

I also watched a video that made the case for Meridian being a logical place for an aviation MRO (maintenance repair operation), but my mind kept wandering back to those crazy Key brothers and how they made history.

Our Brand is Our Music

Later that night, I found myself on the stage of what was once Meridian’s Grand Opera House, circa 1890s. It was closed in 1927, and essentially mothballed and boarded up for decades, until someone got the bright idea to look inside. What they found was astonishing, an 1890s opera house that was pretty much intact.

Today, following a $25 million restoration, this grand old dame has been renamed the MSU Riley Center. It is a jaw-opening beauty with extravagant interior and great acoustics.

As part of our itinerary, I ate dinner on that stage with other consultants and economic developers that included representatives of the Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi Power. (A special thanks to Alisha Frazier with Mississippi Power for her planning and cat-herding abilities.) As I was in utter awe of the historic theater, I really don’t remember much of what was said.

But I do remember Wade Jones, the president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, later to be referred to as “Suede” because of his coolness, saying a rather curious thing: “Our brand is our music. It brings our people together.”

I pondered his statement, all the while listening to a duo playing jazz guitar and clarinet. The next day, on Thursday, Jones’ comments would make even more sense, as I got to see Jimmy Rodgers reincarnate.

Getting Down to Business

Wade opened our breakfast meeting with the obligatory PowerPoint presentation about Meridian. I learned that within a 65-mile radius of Meridian, there was a workforce of over a half million people. I learned there were nearly 1,000 doctors in the region and some 6,000 health-care workers.

I got the scoop on major employers, Meridian Community College, and Meridian’s three industrial parks, all within close proximity to Interstates 59/20. I also learned about the 1,500-acre mega-site which was dual rail served.

Later that morning, I stretched my legs inside a virtually new and vacant 463,000-square-foot distribution center that was operated for only about a year before its owner went bust. The building, with 32-foot ceilings and more than 40 dock doors, sat within almost spitting distance of I-59/20 and can be had for about 50 cents on the dollar. I would be surprised if it is still available a year from now.

More revealing was touring a plant operated by Tower Automotive, a Tier One supplier to Nissan but now extending its product line of stamped parts to other companies as a Tier Two and Tier Three supplier. The plant manager explained how the manufacturing process worked in the plant, which entailed about 140 workers working around and with 67 robots.

An obviously knowledgeable operations guy who has worked in automotive plants in Ohio and at the Ford assembly plant in Kansas City, I asked him how the workers in Meridian compared to their counterparts in the Midwest. He said the workforce in Meridian was “good and conscientious” but that they balked at the idea of working overtime, which he found curious.

He also said the skill sets required for certain highly skilled technical jobs, such as robotic programming and maintenance, were sorely lacking. Still, he was upbeat about the workers in his plant and referred to many of them by their first name.

Pie, SCAR, and Jimmie

Several experiences would follow later in the day that I will forever remember – eating the “world famous black-bottom pie” at lunch at Weidmann’s Restaurant, seeing and hearing Jimmie Rodgers come back to life, and offing a zombie with a Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) in full automatic mode. Well, the zombie was actually a paper target inside an indoor range, but it was all still very cool.

While at Weidmann’s, the oldest operating restaurant in the state since 1870, I had the pleasure to listen to Britt Gully sing those old and wonderful Jimmie Rodgers songs. I can only describe Britt as the real deal, a throwback to a bygone era when music was music. He recorded his CD “Jimmie Rodgers’ Guitar” at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian. (Jimmie’s original 1928 000-45 Martin guitar sits inside a climate-controlled vault with a glass door. It is valued at $3 million.)

Britt was accompanied by Amy Lott, another great local talent. She was the clarinet player at the Riley Center the night before. We would see her again later that night playing keyboard with a band during a catered dinner held at an old steam plant. But back to Jimmie Rodgers, whom I simply idolize.

Rodgers was a giant in 20th century music. He died on May 26, 1933 of tuberculosis two days after his final recording session in New York City. When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three inductees. He is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. He was only 35 years old when he died.

Fact is always stranger than fiction. In the village of Kapkatet, Kenya in the early 1950′s, members of the Kipsigi tribe somehow got hold of some 78 records of Jimmie Rodgers. Convinced that such strange sounds could not come from a mere human, they attributed the voice to a half-man half-antelope spirit they called Chemirocha.

During fertility rites, young Kipsigi maidens would dance seductively to the Jimmie Rodgers records, begging him to join them in dance in hopes that Chemirocha would get nekkid (a southern euphemism for naked) with them.

I think Rodgers would have gotten a big kick out of being worshiped as a demigod. I know I would.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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  1. Always enjoy your blog. Also, I think of you often. Hello from Mya and Michelle. Happy Hoidays!

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