- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2016

CLINTON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi and Continental AG leaders Thursday celebrated the start of construction of the German company’s $1.45 billion tire plant west of Jackson.

But during the ceremonial groundbreaking, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson added his voice to those who want local and minority-owned businesses to get as much of the work involved in the mammoth construction project as possible.

The ceremony took place on the edge of a dusty plain where trees have already been cleared for a construction process that will run for years. The plant is supposed to open in 2019 and ultimately grow to employ 2,500 workers. State and local governments pledged at least $650 million in cash and tax breaks to lure the German conglomerate to Hinds County.

“It’s the people that make the difference, and we believe in the people of Mississippi,” said Nikolai Setzer, who leads Continental’s worldwide tire division.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said the plant will improve the lives of its workers, who are supposed to each make at least $40,000 a year: “We know we come together as Mississippians for economic development, so those 2,500 people working there can live the American dream.”

However, Continental hired a Georgia company to clear the trees, its first major contract, setting off concerns that Mississippi contractors will lose out. Thompson, a Democrat and the only black member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, urged state and local governments to do more to ensure Mississippi businesses, especially small ones and those owned by minorities, get a fair shot. That’s been a persistent concern in Mississippi’s incentive-heavy industrial deals for years.

“We need to make sure the people in this community benefit from it,” Thompson said. “They need to be given a shot at some of this $1.4 billion. It won’t cost us any more. We won’t sacrifice quality. We just need to do it.”

Thompson did not make specific demands that the state’s contract with Continental be amended. The deal makes no requirements of the company concerning vendors. Continental did agree to participate in vendor fairs, and the MDA promised to make its minority and small business development division available to the company.

Continental spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell said the company hired Brad Cole Construction of Carrollton, Georgia, to clear the 900-acre site after soliciting bids from companies inside and outside Mississippi. She said the other bids were significantly higher.

Continental officials said the contractor has hired Mississippi subcontractors. Overall, Continental said it had hired 19 companies so far to do various kinds of work, with 16 based in Mississippi, including a number of subcontractors to Cole.

“Ninety percent of what we have spent so far has been in Mississippi,” Setzer said.

Continental officials urged patience, saying larger contracts are to come.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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