EAST CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI 297 Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith (who served from 1993 to 2009) established a Multi-Modal Transit Study Committee to investigate renovating the Union Station Tower to house Amtrak, Greyhound and Meridian Transit System. Meridian’s Union Station was awarded $5.1 million in federal and state grants from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), including the first ISTEA grant ever awarded by the state for a historic reconstruction project. Amtrak granted $431,000 and locals contributed more than $1 million through Certificates of Participation for the project, which was dedicated on December 11, 1997. Entrepreneurs from the East Central region had long recognized the profitability of the steel industry. After World War II, Sammy Davidson and Melvin Smith, the owners of Meridian Oxygen, established Central Fabricators on Eighth Street in Meridian. Alabamian Jack Bates went to work for Central Fabricators in the 1950s. Not long after, Dewey Tucker bought the company and renamed it Tucker Steel. In 1962, Magnolia Steel began fabricating rebar. Jack Bates formed Bates Steel in 1966. The next year, Bates hired Tommy Dulaney, and after ten years, Tommy decided to start his own business. In the mid-1970s, Dulaney founded Structural Steel Services with the financial backing of Tommy Webb and Sammy Davidson, with whom the Meridian’s steel industry had begun. Around the same time, E.M. “Hoot” Gipson founded Gipson Steel after working for twenty- three years in the structural steel industry. Currently, almost 20 million acres of trees cover the state, an amount that some say equals the amount of forested land encountered by the first European explorers. The Mississippi Forestry Commission estimates that the timber industry earns between $1.3 and $1.5 billion from forestry and forest products every year. Private forest landowners make up most of the forestry and timber industry in the state, owning between 70 and 80 percent of the harvested forests in Mississippi. There are 125,000 forest landowners in Mississippi, and the timber industry provides 189,000 jobs. The East Central region plays a huge role in forestry. Jasper County has 59.4 percent of its surface in woodlands. In Kemper County, woodlands constitute 57.5 percent of the total land acreage. Likewise, Lauderdale County has 57 percent of its land used for growing timber. Other counties in the region reflect this same pattern of land use. Clarke County is 48.7 percent woodland; Leake County is 46.3 percent; Neshoba County shows 43.6 percent; Newton County is 49.5 percent. Poultry continues to be Mississippi’s number one agricultural commodity. East Central Mississippi offers the perfect setting for raising chickens, making the region a prime location for national poultry industries to set up plants. In 1989, Peco Foods, Inc., the eighth largest poultry company in the country in 2014, added a plant in Bay Springs, Mississippi. B.C. Rogers Poultry Inc. in Morton, Mississippi, was bought by Koch Foods, Inc. in December 2001. Koch Foods has 2,700 employees and 650 growers in Mississippi. Marshall Durbin, Sr. expanded his chicken business into Mississippi in the 1930s. At his death, his son, Marshall Durbin, Jr. took over the business and in 1973 bought four Mississippi poultry firms, three of which were in Leake County: Canton Poultry, Inc. and the Carthage-based Leake County Milling Company, Inc., Leake County Hatchery, Inc. and Leake County Trucking Company, Inc. With the acquisition of those four firms, company production rose to 1.22 million birds per week. In 1978, Durbin built a feed mail, hatchery and fleet garage in Philadelphia. Choctaw Maid Farms in Carthage had processing plants in Carthage and Forest Mississippi, two hatcheries and a feed mill and was one of the top ten largest private companies in Mississippi, employing around 3,400 people, with a large number of Hispanic workers. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population in Carthage grew from 1.9 percent to 12.3 percent. In late 2003, Tyson Foods Inc., the second largest food processing company in the United States, purchased Choctaw Maids. Total Mississippi exports of poultry accounts for more than $300 million annually in sales. The biggest foreign customers are Mexico, Russia, Hong Kong, Angola, and Cuba. Much of this exported poultry comes from East Central Mississippi, and these exports account for much of the tonnage shipped out of the Port of Pascagoula where there are huge cold storage and freezer warehouses at the docks. Since 2001, over 300,00 tons of poultry, much of it from East Central Mississippi, have been shipped out of Pascagoula to Cuba alone. With the region’s wealth of timber and natural gas and a growing worldwide demand for poultry products, East Mississippi, with its modern system of highways and railroads, is poised for a bright economic future. The Mississippi Forestry Commission estimates that the timber industry earns between $1.3 and $1.5 billion from forestry and forest products every year.