JOHN LARSON: Just a look at Main Street in Columbus, Mississippi and you can sense why Travel and Leisure voted it one of “America's Great Main Streets”.
But it hasn't always been this way.
As these images taken over the years by Columbus's own renowned photographer Birney Imes suggest, Mississippi has endured challenges throughout its history.
Unemployment, still 15 percent in some parts, including some of the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation. An unlikely place, you'd think, for an economic recovery.
And yet, at 516 Main Street, that's precisely the story.
The Columbus Commercial Dispatch is the last, family owned daily newspaper in Mississippi. The headline on this afternoon? A Japanese tire company will be opening a new plant west of town.
Yokohama Tire will employ 500 people, and possibly up to 2,000 if all goes according to plan.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant.
PHIL BRYANT, MISSISSIPPI GOVERNOR: These are manufacturing jobs. And so hopefully, they are those type that will be transferred from one generation to the next.
JOHN LARSON: The tire plant is just the latest in what is now called “The Golden Triangle” — a shining example of new manufacturing growth in an area that not too long ago was just the opposite.
Plant after manufacturing plant had closed here in the late 90's. And then in 2007, the area's largest employer for decades – Sara Lee – closed its food processing plant.
Yet, the area's rebirth was already underway. Severstal: a Russian steel maker built its $900-million dollar plant here, followed by Paccar: the American builder of truck engines. And, when Airbus decided to build helicopters here, many felt it launched a new era.
JOE MAX HIGGINS, CEO OF GOLDEN TRIANGLE DEVELOPMENT LINK: I jokingly tell people that all of a sudden people started walking upright. They started thinking– “Hey, you know, we build stuff that flies.”
JOHN LARSON: At 1102 Main Street, Joe Max Higgins runs the Link – the development group credited with attracting more than 5-billion dollars in new investment to the triangle. Higgins is the area's larger than life salesman – and you can get a sense how that happened.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: Live every second like your ass is on fire.
JOHN LARSON: In other words, go for it.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: All the time. And– and– and– and so that– that– that's– that's typically how we look at this stuff. My license plate on my– on my– my vehicle says, “2EQLAST.”
JOHN LARSON: So second equals last.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: Every time. In this business, if you come in second, you might as well not have participated.
JOHN LARSON: To come in first with Yokohama, Higgin's group helped coordinate a state effort offering $130-million dollars in incentives. It bought the land, developed the site and built a new access road.
When Yokohama raised concerns about the reliability of the local workforce, Joe Higgins made an emotional plea to its top officer.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: I said, “This is a community who– that's heart was cut out when Sara Lee left.”
I said, “You could be the phoenix rising up from the ash by building this new facility here. And you could replace Sara Lee as the community's hope.” And he looked at me and he said, “I want to see this Sara Lee.”
JOHN LARSON: So Higgins took Yokohama's chairman up in a helicopter.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: We did two and a half times around the– around Sara Lee. I let him look out the window.
JOHN LARSON: You're looking down at destroyed plants.
JOE MAX HIGGINS: Looks like a bomb hit it. Okay? And two and a half times. He looked up at me and he nodded. I kinda think back that that might have been the day that might have been the day, the second that we were picked.
JOHN LARSON: Yokohama and other manufacturers were also drawn to the area's industrial mega sites, pre-approved and ready for contraction, as well as non-union labor, and universities, including the local community college.
The community college had a record of training its students for the high-tech factory work. For training purposes, Airbus provides the students with helicopter components. Paccar offers truck engines.
East Mississippi Community College's Dr. Raj Shaunak.
JOHN LARSON: What do you say to the line that we've all heard for decades now, that American manufacturing is either dead or it's dying?
DR. RAJ SHAUNAK, COMMUNITY COLLEGE PROFESSOR: Modern manufacturing in America, but especially in the golden triangle of Mississippi, is not disappearing,
JOHN LARSON: How much does the area gets out, for all the incentives it gives industry?
In the Steel Mill's case, local efforts provided $12 million dollars in land, infrastructure and tax breaks. The county now receives more than 2 million a year in revenues, which will soon grow to five million every year. So the investment will more than pay off in the long run.
JOHN LARSON: The area's rebirth, however, is only one of the stories we encountered on Main Street. We were in town the week of Dr. Martin Luther King Day.
JOHN LARSON: The gathering took place on the courthouse steps within a few feet of a Civil War monument honoring those who defended the ‘Values of the Confederacy'.
KAMAL KARIEEM: Mississippi is still a very segregated society. A lot of people like to put blinders on and act like it does not exist.
JOHN LARSON: Kamal Karriem is a local preacher who helped organize the event.
KAMAL KARIEEM: In Mississippi there is a psychosis of poverty. In other words, I've been poor for so long, until I think that that's the way that it's supposed to be.
JOHN LARSON: The counties around Columbus include some of the poorest people in the poorest state in the nation.
In some areas, one-third of the people live in poverty. The Columbus public school system has been largely abandoned by its white residents.
40 percent of the city is white, yet only 10 percent of the city's school system is white. Mississippi public schools are poorly funded and the worst performing schools in the nation.
KAMAL KAREEM: This school district traditionally has always had a failing grade, a D. This is what we have to overcome. Not just in education. But in every aspect of life, we have to overcome the psychosis of poverty.
JOHN LARSON: Which begs the question, to what extent will the area's poor benefit from the new manufacturing? Manufacturing taxes supply more than a quarter of the county's school budget, but they contribute only a fraction to the city's struggling school system.
Cedric Brownlee and his wife Sharika both worked at Sara Lee until the plant closed.
CEDRIC BROWNLEE, LOCAL RESIDENT: All of a sudden, it was gone, you know? It was, like, “Wow, you know?” It was devastating for the community. There were a lot of people who really didn't know what tomorrow was going to bring.
JOHN LARSON: While both worked minimum wage jobs, Cedric enrolled at East Mississippi Community College. He worked hard — earning several certifications.
Seven years after losing his job at Sara Lee, he was finally hired. A full-time job, with benefits, at PACCAR the truck engine plant. He now earns 15 dollars an hour, double his minimum wage jobs.
CEDRIC BROWNLEE: We came a long way, you know. Now, here we are. We are livin' better than we ever lived.
JOHN LARSON: Same for Genice Allen, who doubled her pay when she landed a job as an engineering specialist at Airbus, and the company is now paying for her to pursue a business degree.
GENICE ALLEN, AIRBUS EMPLOYEE: And it happened for me. So, I'm very thankful for the opportunity.
JOHN LARSON: Before we finish our story, meet Yusef Karriem, Kamal Karim's son. He sang that night at the courthouse.
A high school senior, Yusef washes dishes at his family's soul food restaurant. Listen to him sing for a moment.
As we show a few more images from photographer, Birney Imes.
Most everyone we met on Main Street says any discussion of the town's future must remember the past.
Before we left Main Street, we learned that 5 out of the first 11 Yokohama's hires are African American.
Young Yusef will not be one of them, because he plans to attend college to become a biology teacher, and then a public school administrator.
CEDRIC BROWNLEE: It was tough, not knowin' when change was gonna come.
JOHN LARSON: And as for Cedric Brownlee, who after years of struggle was hired at the truck plant? The manufacturing boom has already changed his life. He and his wife have bought their first house, and last year took their first vacation.
JOHN LARSON: You mean, literally, your first vacation?
CEDRIC BROWNLEE: Our first vacation.
JOHN LARSON: Since when?
CEDRIC BROWNLEE: Since forever, you know. You know, it– it was our first vacation—
JOHN LARSON: How'd that feel?
CEDRIC BROWNLEE: It– it f– it feel– wonderful.