Toyota calls its employees "team members." It reflects both an expectation and a reality that success comes from teamwork.

How appropriate, then, that the successful effort to land the Toyota plant in Northeast Mississippi exemplified that concept. This was a "team" victory if ever there was one.

Gov. Haley Barbour was the team leader in recent months, and he and his Mississippi Development Authority were extraordinarily effective. The governor used his unique skills and contacts to keep Toyota interested and ultimately to seal the deal, and he is due great credit for making it happen.

But were it not for the groundwork of the last several years, Tuesday's jubilant celebration at Tupelo High School would never have taken place. Barbour's pivotal leadership built on a foundation laid by visionary local elected officials, economic developers and civic leaders who saw a need and worked together to meet it - precisely the formula that has for more than half a century defined the success of this region.

Anticipating needs

From agricultural diversification, to the post-World War II recruitment of quality manufacturers to supplement and then supplant agriculture, to the recruitment of furniture manufacturing that eventually spawned multiple generations of entrepreneurs, to more recent innovative economic and community-building initiatives, this region has never been content to stand still and rely on good fortune to come its way. It has for 60-plus years nurtured the ability to anticipate future needs and act to meet them.

The importance of the formation of the PUL Alliance in 2003 can't be overstated. The first and only such multi-county economic development alliance in the state, PUL officially linked Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties in a common endeavor in which territorial parochialism gave way to common interests and combined resources.

The issue was clear: Furniture, the regional staple, had entered an era of uncertainty, as offshore pressures seemed sure to shrink employment. What would the region do to offset the loss? How would it control its own destiny rather than be buffeted by the prevailing economic winds? PUL and Wellspring were the beginning of the answer to those questions.

The painstaking efforts to secure options on the land for a megasite and then to market it literally around the world added another layer. Even the unsuccessful legislative push last year for state assistance to go with local resources to develop the site raised Wellspring's profile, further galvanized regional leaders on its behalf, and increased the political stakes in securing a major prospect.

All the work that had gone before paved the way for Barbour the dealmaker to do his thing, and he delivered big-time.

The readiness of Northeast Mississippi for this milestone goes back even farther than the formation of the PUL Alliance, or its predecessor by a few years, the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi. A regional culture that developed over many decades was fundamentally important to last week's events.

It was appropriate that the official announcement and raucous welcome of Toyota officials took place at Tupelo High School's state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center, a symbol of the region's commitment to strong public schools. The value placed on education at all levels and the facilities they visited were cited by the Toyota folks as a key reason they chose Wellspring. Had they visited Tupelo High, as they did, or any other school in the region, and found evidence of community indifference or neglect, they no doubt would have formed a much different impression. Instead, they found a reflection of Northeast Mississippi's historic culture of across-the-board support for public education and a work force that embodied the results.

Regionalism works

Another element of the regional culture that allowed the PUL Alliance to come together - to recognize that economic development has little to do with narrow political boundaries - is that regionalism works much better than narrow parochialism. This has been a steadily growing element of the Tupelo/Lee County/Northeast Mississippi development philosophy, and it reached its apex on this project.

Toyota is an appropriate company to join the region's economic development partners. When the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation began recruiting industry in the years immediately following World War II, it consciously avoided companies it knew would exploit workers or not be good corporate citizens. That set a standard, and Toyota - an employee-oriented and socially responsible company - is the ideal continuation of that tradition.

The excitement, even exhilaration, evident at Tuesday's celebration will eventually subside, and the hard work of meeting the challenges of a new era in economic development for Northeast Mississippi will take center stage. But for now, this region deserves to congratulate itself on the culture, values and teamwork that have served it so long and so well.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or

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