Danny Jordan and Benny Rakestraw will have served, between them, a half century on the Union County Board of Supervisors when they retire in January. Mississippi county supervisors are elected from districts, formerly called “beats,” and the county boards elect their own presidents.
Jordan will have served a little more than 30 years as District 3 Supervisor. It was still called “Beat 3” when he was elected and joined the board in November 1985. After a career as a Mississippi State Trooper, Jordan became a Union County deputy for Sheriff Joe Bryant, and was a deputy when he was elected to the county board. Jordan has served as president of the board since the retirement of Norman Treadaway in 2007.
Benny Rakestraw has been the supervisor for Union County District 5 since 1996. Before being elected supervisor, Rakestraw had worked for New Albany furniture manufacturer Futorian, which became Mohasco during his 33 years of employment there.
Accomplishments through the years
Looking back on the 50 total years they have served, Jordan and Rakestraw recently talked with NAnewsweb.com and proudly remembered some of the county board’s work during their tenure.
Jordan recalled that, “In the late 1980s the Union County-owned hospital was not doing very well.” A great many hospitals around were not doing well at that time.
The 1946 Hill-Burton Act provided funding for hundreds of new hospitals for small communities throughout the country. During the period 1948 through 1970, more new hospital beds per capita were created in Mississippi under the Hill-Burton Act than in any other state. However, the practice and funding of health care had changed radically during the years that Hill-Burton hospitals were being built. The Union County facility was one of many Hill-Burton hospitals that were struggling in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The county board selected the Baptist Hospital system to take over management of the New Albany hospital,” said Jordan. “We picked Baptist because we believed they would give Union County a full service hospital, not a first aid station from which patients would be taken to another city for treatment.”
“It was done during the early part of my time on the board, but it is one of the decisions I am proudest of,” said Jordan. “The Baptist folks have done a wonderful job over the last 25 years. I think their investment in medical service in Union County now totals more than $50-million, and we have one of the best hospitals of any community our size anywhere.”
Rakestraw cited the huge improvement in county maintained roads as one of the most gratifying accomplishments during the time he and Jordan have served on the board.
“Only about twenty percent of the county roads in Union County were paved,” Rakestraw said. “Now 95% of county roads are black-topped.” Union County has between 550 and 600 miles of county-maintained roads.
“We passed two bond issues totaling $3-million to pave the roads, upgrade the bridges and so forth,” said Jordan. The last of the bonds issued for road improvements was paid off in 2010.
Jordan and Rakestraw mentioned the opening of the New Albany campus of Northeast Mississippi Community College (NEMCC) as another of the things they are proudest of that occurred during their time as supervisors. “We are also really happy about the tuition scholarship plan at Northeast that Union County and the City of New Albany set up,” Rakestraw said. Under the plan all Union County high school graduates receive scholarships for two full years of tuition at NEMCC. Students are required to maintain a 2.0 Grade Point Average to continue receiving tuition benefits under the program.
Recruiting Walmart Corporation to open its 800,000 square foot Walmart Distribution Center at 973 Highway 30 West also stands out as a proud achievement in the minds of the two retiring supervisors.
Jordan and Rakestraw cited several manufacturing operations, together employing thousands of people, that were recruited and developed in Union County during the last three decades. They include: Masterbilt, Piper, Jackson Furniture, Albany Industries, VIP Seating, Emerald, Abby, Vutec and Kevin Charles.
After the blood, sweat and fears, another jewel in the crown
Certainly the most conspicuous accomplishment during the time Jordan and Rakestraw have served on the Union County Board of Supervisors is the opening of the $1.2-billion Toyota of Mississippi manufacturing plant in the eastern part of Union County. It stands as the single most dramatic economic development project in Mississippi during the last decade.
County supervisors in Union, Pontotoc and Lee Counties took a bold step on July 21, 2003, when they formed the PUL Alliance, an entity that acquired a large tract of land in Union County with the intent of recruiting a major manufacturer to the site.
Jordan gave Randy Kelly, executive director of the Three Rivers Economic Development District, credit for conceiving the PUL Alliance and for persuading the three county governments to make a major financial commitment to it. Each county took on an obligation of $8.8-million — more than $26-million all together — to form the PUL Alliance and acquire the land for a then unknown manufacturing company.
“Nothing quite like it had been done before,” said Jordan. “We had to get a special bill through the state legislature authorizing us to organize the PUL Alliance.”
Then work began to attract a manufacturer to build on the site.
“We had no idea we’d get Toyota,” said Jordan. “I was among those who traveled to Barcelona, Spain, in an attempt to recruit a manufacturer for the PUL Alliance site.”
Jordan and Rakestraw gave Kelly and David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation (CDF), the lion’s share of the credit for recruiting Toyota. It was known that Toyota was looking to establish an additional manufacturing site in the southern US, and competition in recruiting Toyota was extremely stiff among several potential sites in the region.
The dramatic announcement early in 2007 that Toyota was going to build its new plant in Union County was memorable. The rafters rang in the auditorium at the Tupelo high school when Governor Haley Barber, Toyota officials and other Mississippi dignitaries made the good news known.
Land prices near the announced plant site shot up dramatically.
Then the United States and world economies dived into a dramatic recession late in 2008, and Toyota Corporation announced from Tokyo that opening the new plant here had been indefinitely postponed. Toyota assured PUL Alliance and Mississippi officials that it intended to keep its promise and open the new plant at some future time. However, Jordan and Rakestraw agreed it created considerable anxieties for them, and everyone involved.
“We were sweating it a little there for a while,” said Jordan. Both Jordan and Rakestraw are well-known in the area for their unique grins. Those grins may have been slightly strained from time to time while the Toyota opening was on hold.
But Toyota did make good its promise. The plant did open near Blue Springs in eastern Union County, and the grins returned for the Union County Supervisors and thousands of others in north Mississippi.
The plant is turning out Toyota Corollas by the thousands.
And now for the future
Jordan and Rakestraw both own farming operations in Union County and say they’ll spend time with that work. Both veteran supervisors agree they are comfortable with their decisions to retire. Both of them are old enough to remember when mules and horses did the farm work now done by internal combustion engines.
Farmers in those earlier times used to refer to strong, dependable draft animals as “hitting the collar pretty good,” meaning the equines were doing a good job of pushing against the large leather collar that distributed the load around the necks and shoulders of the horses and mules.
Danny Jordan and Benny Rakestraw have been “hitting the collar pretty good” for a long time for Union County. Retirement or not, neither of them is likely to totally stop pulling a good load.