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After years of work, an open field in Canton has completed its transformation into Mississippi's first robotic sorting center that could one day employ upwards of 1500 people.
A number of Amazon officials and prominent politicians — including Gov. Tate Reeves. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Congressman Michael Guest — were in attendance for the grand opening event Thursday morning.
Madison County Board of Supervisors President Paul Griffin began proceedings with a metaphorical fishing story that began about 18 years ago. Unlike many fishing stories, Griffin promised his was true.
"My board, Madison County Board of Supervisors, and previous boards went fishing for a big fish to put right here on this spot," Griffin said. "At the time we didn't know it would be Amazon. Amazon didn't know it would be Amazon."
Reeves said the moment was significant not just for Canton, but also for the whole state.
From earlier this year: Amazon working to ensure workers' safety after shooting at Horn Lake facility
"What a great day this is, and what a milestone it is," Reeves said. "It's a very big day in Canton, it's a very big day in Madison County, and frankly it's a very big day in the state of Mississippi."
The more than 3 million square foot facility is known as JAN1, named after the airport code for Jackson-Evers International Airport, and began operations July 24 but formally opened Thursday. It already employees about 700 people, Amazon spokesperson Divina Mims said. Once it is fully staffed, it could bring jobs to more than twice that many.
Employees will work closely with automated systems to carry out the plant's main duties, receiving, stowing, picking and packing. In receiving, the plant brings in new products which are then stowed in the proper locations.
Amazon's systems then know which products are held in what facilities, and when an order comes in for a product stowed in the JAN1 facility, employees will work with robots known as Kivas to pick the product out of storage, before it travels on a conveyer belt to be packaged and labeled. Boxes are then sent to another facility where they are sorted before finally making it onto delivery vehicles and to customers' front doors.
There are more than 4700 Kivas at the Madison facility. They glide along the floor in the large storage rooms, until they find the correct shelf of items. A piston then rises to attach to the shelf, and the robot brings it to the right employee for items to be picked off of the shelf.
Mims said automation in the facility allows it to work at a much higher volume than plants without robots. She said the company does not view the Kivas as threats to people's jobs because they require human workers to operate properly and to correct for any errors. For example, there is a team of workers that primarily deal with items that fall on the ground while shelves are being moved by Kivas, Senior Operations Manager Amani Floyd said.
"Machines are great, but they're not perfect," Mims said. "It still takes a significant amount of manpower to operate our robots."
Reeves said that jobs such as robot operators tend to be more high-skill jobs, so the facility coming to Mississippi is evidence of the state's investments in workforce development. Joey Deason, executive director of the Madison County Economic Development Authority, said there were about five other communities from other states seeking to land the robotic sorting center, but Madison County won.
"You have to have a skillset to operate this, and we're training people to do that in the state of Mississippi," Reeves said.
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During his speech, Reeves specifically thanked Hosemann and Gunn for their work in the legislature on workforce development and training.
"While we have our internal political fights every single day … when it comes to economic development we can stand united," Reeves said.
Reeves said the most common question states used to get were about what incentives would be given to land a facility, but now the first question he hears "every single time" is about the readiness of Mississippi's workforce.
Amazon did receive about $8.5 million in incentives, Deason said, which included help building infrastructure. Deason said estimates for return on investment indicate that the state may see revenues exceeding what they spent within less than a year.
"Amazon is paying full boat in taxes," Deason said. "The state of Mississippi is recouping those funds in less than a year."
Safety and well-being of Amazon facility workers has been a concern of many, after prominent news stories that included six people dying after a tornado hit an Amazon facility in Illinois. Site Lead Isaiah Flanagan said the facility's top priority is "the safety and wellbeing of our associates."
On the building's first floor, there is a designated space to seek shelter from a tornado. Nearby is a small "wellness zone" that includes yoga mats and foam rollers.
Flanagan also said the company offers competitive compensation and benefits. Starting pay is above local and national averages, Mims said, and every employee of the company receives the same healthcare package, according to Flanagan.
Flanagan said he moved from Texas to Mississippi about a year ago to lead this facility, "a building that was built by Madison County for Madison County, and for the state of Mississippi."
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Amazon facility officially opens to fanfare in Madison County