Continental could make Mississippi a major player in global tire market

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Gov. Phil Bryant right) and Continental AG executive Nikolai Setzer talk to reporters after the ceremonial groundbreaking on a new tire plant in Mississippi.

The world has a growing appetite for tires and soon Mississippi will feed that need.

Thursday morning, ground was ceremonially broken on the future site for Continental Tire’s newest manufacturing facility. It is the largest in the Hanover, Germany-based company’s 145-year history.

Nikolai Setzer, a member of the executive board of Continental AG’s tire division, drove the point home by noting that the planned $1.45 billion investment represents a sizable portion of the company’s roughly $40 million in U.S. sales.

Mississippi political and economic development officials kept plans for the facility under wraps for nearly two years. In Mississippi, insiders referred to the secret plans as “Project Potter” while inside Continental it was known as “Project Diamond.”

“That lets you know it’s precious,” Setzer quipped at the groundbreaking ceremony in west Hinds County near Clinton.

News of the project leaked in early 2016, ahead of the legislative session. In the early days of the session, state and local leaders approved an incentive package worth approximately $600 million. As part of its deal with Mississippi, Continental agreed to create 2,500 jobs that pay an average of $40,000 per year.

Continental said it needs a new plant to meet demand from its customers, which includes auto dealers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“When we selected Mississippi, we realized the site is important,” said Paul Williams, a Continental executive vice president. “In the end, we make a decision based on the community. We made decision that we wanted to be in Hinds County and we wanted to be a part of Mississippi.”

Plans call for a 5.2 million square-foot industrial facility, situated on 16th section land that the Clinton School District formerly owned. The project has not been without controversy. Early on, before the nature of the project was public, local residents asked for covenants to ensure that activities that produce noise and air pollution would not be allowed on the site.

In August, local residents brought to the attention of state officials the existence of cemeteries on the site. A cultural-assets report about the site, compiled by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 2014, mentions a cemetery known as New Salem on the nearly 900-acre tract near Clinton. The report also notes that the headstones are consistent with the 19th century planter-class and that the cemetery also contains unmarked graves, likely of slaves of the white people buried on the grounds.

African American residents told Mississippi Today and other media outlet about the existence of an all-black cemetery across the road from the known cemetery, to the west. Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, told Mississippi Today that work crews excavated both sides of the road, but found no graves on the west side of the former road. The other graves are being interred at the Bolton Cemetery, Rent said.

“They didn’t want to be disrespectful and miss anything,” Rent said.

Congressman Bennie Thompson encouraged Continental and state officials to do more local and minority hiring for the tire plant.

Congressman Bennie Thompson encouraged Continental and state officials to do more local and minority hiring for the tire plant.

Another dustup came in recent weeks, when media outlets reported that the first contract Continental awarded for site clearing went to a Georgia-based firm. Gov. Phil Bryant told reporters Thursday that the contractors would hire Mississippi workers, many of whom are living in hotels in Clinton near the work site.

U.S. Rep.  Bennie Thompson, who lives in Bolton, made a plea for more local and minority contractor involvement.

“Let’s make it work,” he said.

Continental expects to open the plant in 2018.