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HINDS COUNTY — At the new $1.45 billion Continental Tire plant in Hinds County, machines embed steel and cord into rubber, mold the material into a cylinder, then cure it with high temperatures.
The finished product is a 40-inch truck tire, one of which came off the line Wednesday during the plant’s official grand opening. Continental plans to employ at least 250 people by the time production officially begins in early 2020. That number will increase to 500 by the end of 2020 and 2,500 by 2028.
“In Mississippi, we believe in the purpose and the dignity of hard work. We believe God designed each of us to work,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a gubernatorial candidate, during the ceremony. “And the best way to unlock the potential in every Mississippian and the way to unlock the potential of our state is to create an environment for more high-quality jobs like are being created here today.”
Continental said it will pay an average salary of $40,000 to employees at the plant, but has not released specific pay ranges, particularly for the 2,000 production workers it promises to eventually employ.
At the grand opening, officials praised the leadership of state lawmakers, county supervisors and the Mississippi Development Authority in bringing the German manufacturer to Mississippi in 2016.
The company received roughly $600 million and state and local tax incentives to locate in the state, which marked a rocky beginning for the plant.
Critics of the deal bemoaned the use of taxpayer money for the plant, which the memorandum of understanding for the project shows would pay for items such as buildings, fixtures, railway improvements and electric substation and fire protection improvements.
In addition, the incentives would help pay for design surveying, inspection, testing and contingency costs for construction of industrial access roads as well as employee training facilities and equipment.
Controversy also arose early on in response to plans to relocate a historic cemetery, known as New Salem, uncovered at the project site.
A cultural-assets report about the site, compiled by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 2014, mentioned New Salem and the fact that its headstones were consistent with the 19th century planter-class. It also noted that the cemetery also contained unmarked graves, likely of African Americans enslaved by whites buried on the grounds. Plans called for those graves to be moved to the Bolton Cemetery.
However, African American residents who grew up nearby, in a community just outside of Bolton, described to Mississippi Today and other media outlets another all-black cemetery on the site, which prompted state officials to look for more graves in summer 2016.
After state economic development officials concluded that no such cemetery existed, archaeological and anthropological teams from the University of Mississippi Center for Archaeological Research commenced a more than two-year-long process of examining and re-interring remains from approximately 250 graves.
Parts of the historic site were not moved to the Bolton cemetery, however, including iron fencing originally associated with some graves because, according to MDA, “much of the fence was rusted beyond repair and/or bent by nature and trees that had grown through the fencing over the past 150 years.”
“The few salvageable pieces of fence were retrieved by a descendant of those interred in a small family plot associated with the fence,” an MDA spokesman told Mississippi Today last year. The agency said the reinterments were completed in late 2018.
Now that the plant has opened, local officials hope the plant is a boon to the area.
“It is one of the best investments we could have made. The dividends of this investment will pay off for decades because there’s so much area and space for expansion to go from just building truck tires to car tires,” Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, told Mississippi Today. “I’m very optimistic as to what the future holds for citizens of Hinds County and the state of Mississippi.”
Hinds County Supervisor Peggy Calhoun, in describing what she called the state’s “covert” deal in her ceremony speech, acknowledged the secretive origins of the project, that local officials did not know who the company was until the deal was final.
“Some members of the Legislature received a lot of flak because of this investment,” Sykes added.
Sykes explained that the process for recruiting businesses is exceptionally competitive and Mississippi is desperate for those jobs.
Paul Williams, a Continental Tire vice president, said the company investigated sites across several states but Mississippi stood out because of the “strong leadership of your governor,” he told the crowd at the opening, referring to Gov. Phil Bryant.
Continental Tire employee Michael Washington, who started working at the company in April, has a role in one of the earliest stages of tire production. A lab quality technician, Washington takes raw materials — steel, chemicals, natural rubber, textiles — from the warehouse to the plant lab where he inspects and tests their quality.
Washington submitted 16 job applications to Continental in early 2019, “just to see if one stuck.” To stand out, he added a watermark of the Continental logo to his resume. Washington had spent roughly seven years as a contract quality control worker at the Nissan plant in Canton, which experienced layoffs last spring. The work had become redundant, Washington said. Continental also pays him more — in the low $20-per-hour range, or close to the state median household income of $43,500 — and is a shorter commute from his Clinton home.
Washington said he’s hopeful working at the tire plant during in its earliest years will allow him to move up through the company.
“I still want to see that they hold up what they say. I know many places say one thing and do another,” Washington said.
R.L. Nave contributed reporting to this story.