POLICOM president William Fruth outlines the findings of his six-month study of the Golden Triangle’s economic development prospects for elected officials during a Monday morning meeting at East Mississippi Community College’s Mayhew campus. With the proper workforce training, Fruth said the area could create as many as 10,0000 new jobs over the next 10 to 20 years. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff
May 13, 2014 10:07:03 AM
The Golden Triangle has the potential to become one of the most dynamic small-area economies in the U.S. if Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties' leaders are prepared to invest in education and expansion efforts, according to an economic and community development study delivered to community leaders Monday.
While the tri-county area has experienced economic development successes over the past year, William Fruth, president of the Florida-based independent economic research firm POLICOM Corporation, told city and county representatives the greatest threat to the region's economy could be its inability to provide skilled laborers for incoming projects like Yokohama Tire's development in Clay County.
The Golden Triangle's best chance for success, he said, is to concentrate on workforce training efforts and develop another large research and development park in connection with Mississippi State University in an attempt to bolster the university's economic impact on the region.
If city and county leaders want to significantly grow the area's economy, they must be prepared to fund workforce and expansion projects, or be content with the few victories already secured, Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said.
Higgins estimated an initial investment, which includes both projects and another to increase Lowndes County sewage capacity near the airport, at about $65 million. Cities and counties across the Golden Triangle passed resolutions for economic development bonds, and those intent notices could come to fruition sometime this calendar year, he said.
As Yokohama proceeds with a first-phase development forecasted to create about 500 jobs and additional phases that could create 1,500 more positions, Fruth said the drain on the Golden Triangle's skilled worker pool could cause other companies eyeing significant developments to look elsewhere.
Fruth's report estimated the region's working-age population at almost 84,000 at the time of the 2012 census. Almost 28,000 of those residents, however, were not looking for employment due to a lack of skills and a preference for entitlement support over upward mobility issues associated with entry-level, minimum wage jobs.
Yokohama officials had questions about the region's ability to provide skilled workers before inking a development deal and locating to West Point, but East Mississippi Community College pledged its support to train job seekers for the company's specific needs.
"If the issue of providing 500 skilled workers is questionable today, it will be critical in the future in determining if Yokohama expands as planned to 2,000 workers over the long term," the report states. "It is quite possible the region could create over the next 10-20 years as many as 10,000 new primary jobs, billions of dollars of investment and hundreds of millions of dollars of payrolls and economic activity; however, this will not happen if the workforce is not available."
To solve this issue, Fruth suggested the region create a facility housing programs that encourage chronically unemployed residents to acquire needed skillsets and education for expected jobs. The programs, he said, should also inspire school-age children by teaching them the virtues of gainful employment.
The tri-county economic development center could also serve as a business incubator, house offices for economic organizations and provide more space to EMCC for advanced manufacturing education.
As for the Starkville expansion project, Fruth's report calls for the LINK to plan and develop a major research and development campus of at least 500 acres near MSU. An additional 500 acres should be identified for future use as well, the report states.
Higgins estimated the project would cost at least $10 million, even if the LINK acquired land and tended to infrastructure needs in phases. In this scenario, the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority would be the land owner, he said, negating the need for State College Board approval for development deals.
"It would be de-coupled from the university, but we want MSU to be there and partner with us every step of the way," he said. "Our vision is (OCEDA President) Jack Wallace and his team would be at the controls and make decisions."
Fruth's report encouraged Lowndes County and Clay County officials to continue developing the airport industrial park and Yokohama site, respectively, while also looking into possible speculation building construction and other "bait sites." Oktibbeha County representatives were advised to develop a long-term plan for quality of life issues.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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