August 5, 2014 10:32:22 AM
Oktibbeha County took a step toward funding a new industrial park when supervisors approved a resolution supporting a Golden Triangle Development LINK-backed project that economic developers conservatively hope will create more than 1,000 new jobs.
The board voted 4-1 to move forward in a process that is expected to issue $5 million in bond for land acquisition and infrastructure improvements at the 300-plus acre site near the Miss. Highway 25 and Miss Highway 182 bypass. Only District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery opposed the matter, but he later said he only voted against the resolution because he wished the LINK would have performed more viability studies on Cornerstone Park, a mostly vacant industrial site on Miss. Highway 25, and identified more potential locations.
Hailed as a way to create Oktibbeha County's only significant, shovel-ready industrial park, the LINK plan seeks a combined $10 million from the county and Starkville. Both boards teed up possible bond issuances after approving $5 million for economic development projects and entered into new contracts with the LINK for industrial enticement.
After the meeting, Board President Orlando Trainer said the county must now await Starkville aldermen to support the project before both entities and the LINK can formally begin financing and acquisition processes. The Starkville Board of Aldermen is scheduled to meet 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall.
Public hearings on the proposed bond issuances are expected in the future if Starkville approves its own resolution, but LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said the first step his group will take is to organize all players in the project -- including city and county officials and utility providers -- and develop a memorandum of understanding between the numerous agencies.
Millage increases are expected to service bond debt, but representatives have not yet released how much of a tax hike is anticipated.
"I guess we now are starting to identify the pieces of the puzzle, but there are still a lot of moving parts," Trainer said referencing the city's pending decision.
"I think it's safe to say we're taking a great leap of faith in the right direction in order to get a developable product that we can market to attract industry and help our residents improve their situations," he added. "Now, we have to wait on the city and possible come back and go through the process -- identify who will handle it, an underwriter, bond attorneys and so forth. The biggest thing left is tomorrow. We have to see if Starkville is willing to move forward with us."
If the county wishes to attract significant manufacturing jobs, it must have sites with the needed infrastructure capacity or Oktibbeha will never see industrial enticement successes like the ones secured in Lowndes and Clay counties, LINK officials have repeatedly said since unveiling the park's plans. Electricity capacity continues to hamper Cornerstone, and a potential load increase is not expected until at least 2017.
The LINK has 326 acres of combined parcels under option in West Starkville until November 2015 and needs the $10 million to formally acquire the properties, perform due-diligence studies and provide road and water infrastructure for future advanced manufacturers.
Potential for 1,300 new jobs
The proposed site is expected to offer more than 1.3 million square feet in facility space and contain at least two commercial parcels. Conservatively, Higgins said the board could set a goal of reaching 1,300 new jobs across the next 10-15 years if the park comes to fruition.
A portion of the site falls under Starkville Electric Department's service area and can currently receive an estimated 10-12 megawatts, but SED General Manager Terry Kemp said that amount could easily be increased to at least 20 megawatts. Kemp estimated about one-third of the site -- about 40 percent of available space -- would fall under SED's operating area.
"As new load demands come in, we'll continue to evaluate our grid. We have already started discussions with TVA to bring in an alternate feed for our long-range plan," Kemp said. "Clearly right now on our side we have the capacity to grow."
The remainder is serviced by 4-County Electric Association, which also provides power to Cornerstone Park. A similar 2-megawatt load is currently available at the proposed site, Higgins said, but both utility providers are expected to engage the Tennessee Valley Authority for a study on increased power supply.
Lynn Timbrook, 4-County's manager of engineering, told The Dispatch last year that engineers are working on a plan to improve Cornerstone capacity, but the project is years and significant economic commitments away from becoming a reality. It is believed a Cornerstone improvement project could also increase 4-County's capacity in its share of the proposed site.
Timbrook was not available for comment Monday.
In June, Higgins said 12 megawatts could power approximately six facilities with the same power consumption demands as Eurocopter or about two-thirds of Paccar's individual electric requirement, a point he reiterated at Monday's board meeting.
"If both (SED and 4-County) do what they're wanting to in a reasonable amount of time, I don't think we'll have a power issue. We don't have a shortage yet," Higgins told Montgomery when he questioned the site's electric capacity.
Oktibbeha County's lack of shovel-ready sites already prevented the LINK from contending for one significant project, Higgins told supervisors. A prospective automotive parts manufacturer toured the area but took its jobs elsewhere due to the lack of capacity for its site, he said.
Despite Starkville's pending support, Joey Deason, Oktibbeha County's LINK representative and chief financial officer, is already marketing the proposed industrial park to prospective business by touring the site with potential suitors.
Higgins told supervisors the LINK is currently working two large, visible companies that engage in non-manufacturing areas like technical services. Non-manufacturing companies are not expected to burden the park's electrical capacity like a small factory, and the LINK CEO alluded those types of projects could locate in the two parcels previously referenced for commercial businesses.
"I'm not calling this a bad project, but I wish we could have at least broadened the net where we could have looked somewhere different, one that doesn't have so much residential and commercial potential. I'm not saying there's a better deal out there, but I wish we could have continued to look," Montgomery said after the meeting. "I just don't want to jump the gun on anything, and this is a big purchase with county tax dollars. I don't know if taxpayers have an appetite now for another millage increase, and we still have consolidation coming that could, again, force a tax increase. I wish this plan the best, moving forward, and hope it will do some great things for our county."
Awaiting Starkville's decision
It is uncertain how Starkville aldermen will handle today's resolution since two of its members -- Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins and Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn -- opposed entering into a new services contract with the LINK last month. If a coalition between Perkins, Wynn and Vaughn, the Ward 7 alderman who routinely votes with Perkins on a variety of issues, forms then the trio would only need one more vote to block the resolution.
Perkins continued to say he was not in favor of any tax increase in last week's Starkville Audit and Budget Committee meeting, even though economic development bonds were not specifically discussed. After a July special-call meeting, the vice mayor declined to comment on the bond proposal and industrial plan, saying the matter had not yet come before him at the board table.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said sees both sides of the arguments for and against a tax increase to fund the new park, but he had not yet made up his mind on the issue. Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker said he was leaning toward supporting the resolution, but his decision was not 100 percent assured.
"If you're going to build a sustainable tax base that, over the long haul, is going to provide quality city services on low tax rates, you must have an aggressive industrial development strategy. If you don't, your options are either lower quality of services or higher taxes," Mayor Parker Wiseman said last month.
"There are times every so often when it's important for a community to rally together and do the hard work of making progress. This is one of those times; we cannot miss this opportunity," he added. "It's a reasonable expectation that this site will set the table for hundreds of millions of dollars in new industrial development and hundreds, if not thousands, of new, quality jobs adding to the local economy over the next generation."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch