School may not be best neighbor

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The new Melbourne High School may be an obstacle to attracting prospective employers looking into the former Boeing facility, according to Barbara Merrick with Entergy's office of economic development. Merrick addressed a gathering of business and political leaders as well as members of the Central Ozarks Task Force for Economic Development at the former Boeing plant in Melbourne June 12.

"I'm concerned by the proximity to the new school," Merrick said. "Soccer moms and big trucks don't mix well."

Melbourne School Superintendent Gerald Cooper said the former Boeing plant had been taken into consideration when architects drew up the plans. "We have two roads and possibly a third," he said. He said besides the road it shares with Boeing, the school also has another road leading out the north side of the property onto airport road. He said if the money is available a third road might be built leading straight from the school building to Lacrosse Road.

"We might need to figure out an alternate route," Merrick said.

Merrick said the problem needs to be addressed before bringing prospective businesses to town. The new Melbourne High School and former Boeing plant are both off Lacrosse Road in Melbourne.

"Our concern was whether we'd have enough roads here so we wouldn't conflict with the plant," Cooper said. He said Merrick's concern had already been taken into consideration when the plans for the school were drawn up.

Another possible impediment is the lack of a major highway near Melbourne, Merrick said. "Most look for a large interstate to be nearby," she said.

She said the plant in Melbourne is an anomaly because it is a state-of-the-art facility which is off the beaten path.

Another concern of Merrick is the number of temporary signs around Melbourne. "I saw one, two or three signs on every corner," she said. "There were 16 in a two-block stretch."

She said she didn't see a lot of current information on the signs and that the signs made the town look cluttered. She said the city might look into a sign ordinance to fix the problem. "I didn't see any welcome signs coming in and out of town," Merrick said.

She also mentioned that a trailer and house that were in disrepair near the plant didn't show very well and that they needed to be cleaned up as well.

Merrick said large companies pay consultants to do the initial looking and make a short list of appropriate facilities for them. "The thing is getting the building in front of them," she said.

Merrick said important factors to companies include labor cost, interstate access, skilled workers, low corporate tax, availability of telecommunications and energy rates. Eighty to 85 percent of start-up companies are started by local entrepreneurs, she said.

A possibility she mentioned is that the plant could be subdivided between different users, with one company using one part of the plant and another using a different one.

Merrick said Melbourne needs a business retention and expansion program. "Can you name the top 10 employers in the county?," she asked. "We need to be vigilant. We can't afford to lose more." She told those attending they should ask existing businesses how they're being treated.

She said the market for the plant needs to be pinpointed. She said there are few big projects and many people vying for them. She said if someone knows someone with a company who is from Arkansas or the area they should tell them about the plant. She said open houses should be held and flyers describing the building should be distributed.

"Don't forget to keep marketing constantly to in-state partners," she said. She said anyone with financial interest or who is active in the area should be encouraged to help with the effort to find another employer to fill the plant.

"Once you get a target group industry, send delegations to trade shows," Merrick said.

"You know them, you've done business with them for years," task force chairman Randy Zook said.

Merrick said there also needs to be a formal maintenance and repair plan in place to keep the factory in like-new condition.

"We've got a brochure ready. We have to have something to hand people," Zook said. "We have got to get a market plan, not wait for the phone to ring."

Zook said three companies have already shown interest before the task force actually started doing anything. He said it's highly unlikely anything will come of it, but it's a good sign.

Merrick said there needs to be an attractive incentive package for potential business. This could be done through the terms of lease and through local government, she said.

She said it is necessary to have a claw back clause in case things don't work out as agreed. Merrick said it is also important to be careful about getting into a deal with a company. She said when she worked in South Arkansas in economic development, many companies seemed to think people in the area were stupid. "Some of the deals they brought up to us were so desperate we just had to say 'no,'" she said.

"You don't want someone here for a year or less and contaminating the facility," Merrick said. "You've got to look long term. You've got to be very careful at what you allow in here, draw a line in the sand."

"We need to be sure we get a factory that will invest in our situation," state Sen. Paul Miller said. "We've got a building for a good-sized factory. Fifty employees is not enough. We don't need to tie up the building for a possible 50."

"It'd make life easier if we had a couple of hundred people working here," Melbourne Mayor Mike Cone said. "We're going to pull this off."

"I believe in a year and a half to two years we'll be better off than we were with Boeing," Zook said.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln will visit the former Boeing plant Aug. 10.

Zook said it will be a networking event to acquaint and update Lambert about the current state of the plant. The event is by invitation only.

The Boeing facility in Melbourne closed April 13. The plant opened its doors in Melbourne as Douglas Aircraft in the 1960s.

Boeing officials announced its closing in February. Boeing said the plant was unnecessary to Boeing's current manufacturing.

The Melbourne facility served as a repair station for Boeing doors and flight control. It provided maintenance, repair and overhaul services.

Boeing transferred the remaining work from the Melbourne facility to its operations in Salt Lake City.

Cone formed the Task Force for Economic Development in February to actively seek a replacement for Boeing. The task force works at the local level and is made up of residents of the community.

Boeing transferred ownership of the plant to the city of Melbourne on April 28.

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