County looks for Yokohama rail erosion solution

The front of the Yokohama Tire plant.
Staff Writer

With employment topping 650 at the three-year-old plant, the buzz in and around Clay County is all about whether an expansion at Yokohama is near.

The question has come up at several community meetings in the last month, especially with Joe Max Higgins, the CEO of the Golden Triangle Development Link and Link board members making appearances before Clay County supervisors on three different occasions.

But while the community's hopes rise, county leaders are focusing on more mundane issues that if not addressed, could one day turn into bigger problems.

"I'm very optimistic Yokohama is going to move forward, but have no indication or information to that effect, I'm just optimistic. We're just really proud to have them," said Scott Ross, chairman of the Clay County Economic Development District board following a meeting this week that included a meeting with Higgins.

Ross said Higgins was in for a general economic development update.

West Point Selectmen may ask him in for a similar update next month.

Meanwhile, the CCEDD is working to eliminate an erosion problem that threatens the railroad track that serves the sprawling Yokohama campus.

In March, crews from Hattiesburg-based Continental Rails were rushed in to shore up a stretch of rail bed that was threatened by erosion.

The area was so muddy, the repair team had to come in my rail.

The CCEDD signed a $10,593 contract, plus additional cost for rock, to have the repairs done.

Before the tire giant opened the first phase of its operation in late 2015, the Mississippi Development Authority spent $4.4 million building the section of rail as part of the incentives to bring Yokohama to the 1,000-plus acre Prairie Belt Powersitenorth of West
Point. The rail is bordered mostly by farm land and the area where the rail line is threatened is bordered by land owned by the CCEDD and leased to Fisher Farms for crops.

Heavy rains last spring filled drainage ways with silt that caused water to start eating away at part of the rail bed.

Now that repairs have been made, the CCEDD is looking for long-term solutions.

One might be to turn the property along the track into grazing land rather than crop land. Another option may be a berm along the 800-1,000-foot stretch of track to make sure water stays away and also using that for grassland rather than crops.

This week, the economic development board asked engineer Bob Calvert to recommend solutions. The board also will discuss the situation with Fisher Farms and if necessary, adjust its land lease with the CCEDD board.

"We'll talk to them, get everyone together and look at the options and recommendations and then use common sense," Ross said, noting the board will have a special meeting as soon as all the players can come together.

"We want to keep these little headaches off the table so it's not something Yokohama ever has to worry about. We'd never want something like a train derailment or track washout that would shut the plant down for a long period of time. We're not going to let that happen," Ross added.

When Yokohama initially decided on West Point, the company promised 500 jobs and a $300 million initial investment.

The company has exceeded both.

It also said three more phases eventually could mean 1,500 more jobs and $2 billion in investment.

It's those discussions years ago that have people wondering today about a second phase, especially as company officials have said Yokohama customers are happy with the company's decision to build its truck tire plant in the U.S.

In July, Dan Funkhouser, Yokohama’s vice-president of commercial sales, told the media,

“The commercial tire market is very strong and growing. Both the replacement and OEM tire markets are expanding. This fits in perfectly with the Mississippi plant, which will increase our capabilities to service our OEM and replacement partners as they grow.” On the street, virtually every mention comes with a note of optimism.

"I sure do hope so. That place I think has had a big impact even though wedon't see it every day," said Jameson Stuart as he filled his car with gas.

"I know folks who work there. I'm retired but I sure do like the difference it's made in the people I know. I hope it keeps growing," noted Sara Lewis as she got groceries.