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LINK: Development plan in works for area


Carmen K. Sisson



Finishing second equals to finishing last, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins said Wednesday, during the Link's quarterly luncheon at Mississippi University for Women.  


He believes this so firmly, he had it emblazoned on his vehicle's vanity license plate, "2EQLAST," he told a crowd of about 200 Link members.  


With that in mind, Higgins is bringing economic development expert Bill Fruth back to Columbus next week to develop a roadmap for the next three to five years of growth in the Golden Triangle.  


Fruth is president of Policom, a Palm City, Fla.-based economics research firm, which ranks cities based upon growth rates, consistency trends, industry averages and other factors. Columbus currently ranks 57th out of 576 micropolitans (urbanized areas with a population of more than 10,000 people, but fewer than 50,000) -- up from its 2004 ranking of number 374. 


Fruth will meet with city and county elected officials, as well as members of the Link Trust, which is funding his visit.  


He will unveil his recommendations for Columbus on March 28 from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at MUW's Nissan Auditorium. The seminar, part of the Link's "Feed the Fire" business growth series, will discuss the area's current economic situation, detailing steps -- including job creation -- required to stay at the present level or advance.  




'The plant decides where the plant goes' 


Fruth also will hold a West Point and Clay County-specific seminar at East Mississippi Community College March 27 at 5:30 p.m.  


In January, the Link agreed to represent the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance and hire someone to specifically recruit industry for West Point and Clay County. The Growth Alliance, which will remain active as the area's chamber of commerce, will pay the Link $350,000 annually for the next three years for its services.  


The Link's involvement has met some resistance, but Higgins said what benefits one community benefits others and people should be supportive. Concerns about which county he will "sell" -- Lowndes or Clay -- are unfounded, he said, because the industries choose sites which meet their needs, and he sells sites he believes will result in a "win." 


"I don't decide where the plant goes; the plant decides where the plant goes," Higgins said. "What's more important than anything is to win the deal." 


Higgins plans to begin a national search the third week of April for the person who will recruit industry for West Point and Clay County. The new recruiter is expected to start work July 1.  


Higgins noted West Point is well-positioned to attract a $100 million-plus industrial project within the next three years, though the Link is making no guarantees.  


The 2007 closure of the Bryan Foods meat processing plant dealt a heavy blow to the area, with around 1,200 employees losing their jobs. But the 550,000 square foot site, situated on 70 acres, still has the utility infrastructure to entice another industry, Higgins said. 


Clay County reported a 17.6 percent unemployment rate for January, according to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. Lowndes County's unemployment rate was 10.7 percent -- slightly above the state average of 10 percent -- with all three surpassing the nation's 8.8 percent average.  




Plants, hotels and  


mystery projects 


In other development news, Higgins said officials with California-based Silicor Materials, formerly Calisolar, have announced a "best guess" construction start of June for phase one of a 1 million-square-foot solar silicon manufacturing facility east of Industrial Park Road.  


At least 1,000 construction workers, projected to earn an average of $2,000 per week, will arrive soon and are expected to stay at least 19 months. 


Silicor must begin phase one construction by Sept. 2 and phase two construction by Dec. 31, or its incentive package will become null and void, Higgins said.  


State lawmakers approved a $75.25 million incentive package in September to lure the company to Mississippi. The plan includes a $59.5 million equipment and construction loan, along with $11.25 million for infrastructure and an additional $4.5 million for local workforce training. Lowndes County gave an additional $19 million in financial incentives.  


And work continues at the Kior biofuels processing facility, which is slated to open this year. Higgins said Link officials will tour the plant next Friday. 


"It has morphed into a very substantial project," he said.  


If there's a fly in the ointment at the moment, it's the Link's attempts to bring another hotel to Columbus.  


Work has stalled on a Highway 45 North hotel, which Higgins jokingly referred to as "the green monster," because of the neon-green plastic sheathing, which currently covers it. The hotel was originally slated to be a Hampton Inn, but owners have said another hotel chain will take the property instead.  


The Link's hopes for an upscale hotel to replace the Gilmer Inn on Main Street have also been somewhat dashed. The Link signed an option to buy the 75-room motel last September, but Higgins said the hotel chain they thought would want it has decided to locate elsewhere in Columbus. He declined to name the chain.  


"I think it's a real possibility we may not be able to get someone to take the Gilmer," Higgins said. "It's got to be somebody willing to take the risk." 


But there's always something on the horizon, and Higgins said he currently is working on a "substantial super project" with an unnamed company, which should make a decision within the next 45 to 50 days.


Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.



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