April 2, 2012 9:53:31 AM
Bill Fruth's visit last week sparked a lot of conversation, and that's usually a good thing. Fruth, an economic development consultant, came to town to present a set of economic goals he's developed for the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link.
Link CEO Joe Higgins would like to see a continued rise in Columbus' ranking in Fruth's micropolitan index, which rates 576 communities for economic strength. Since Higgins has been at the Link, the Columbus Micropolitan has risen from 374th to 57th on Fruth's list.
Fruth's emphasis -- as is the Link's -- is the production of high-paying jobs that import money into the local economy. Anything that leads to that is good; anything else is, well, secondary. That view, expressed by Fruth in a Q&A after one of his presentations, ruffled a few feathers. Quality of life issues, a retirement community and any university not hitched up to the economic development machinery are really not so important, Fruth seemed to say.
Provide high-paying jobs that bring money into the area and the prosperity that comes with them will take care of all the other, he argued.
And that's fine. That is what he -- and Higgins -- are about: attracting providers of high-paying jobs. And they both think quality of life issues are of little value in that effort. While common sense would argue quality of life may play a role, the more important issues for prospective employers are land, transportation, access to power, linkages with colleges and universities and the deal they can cut with state and county governments.
That said, what's the fuss? Higgins is doing what he's been hired to do, and so far, he's done it well. He's unapologetic about it.
"Here's the deal," Higgins said after Fruth's presentation. "I'm not worried about offending anyone. I think it's very important you understand what mission No. 1 is. It's creating primary, high-paying jobs. Period. End of sentence. If you don't agree, I don't care."
The thing to remember is that Higgins is an economic developer and that alone. He's brash; he's outspoken and he's single-minded. Joe is about winning. The message on his Toyota's tag: "Second equals last."
But just because Joe Higgins, or Bill Fruth, downplays quality of life doesn't mean it isn't important or that we shouldn't focus as a community on making this the most livable place we can. The Columbus Arts Council, Convention and Visitors Bureau and Main Street -- all of which have less stature (and funding) than the Link -- tend to quality of life issues.
Contrast the Link with the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, which places a priority on quality of life issues, an approach acting director Jennifer Gregory says has paid off.
Gregory, director of Starkville's CVB and Main Street Association, was named acting director of the Partnership after Jon Maynard's resignation last week.
The CVB, Main Street Association, the Chamber and Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority (OCEDA), all operate under the umbrella of the Partnership and even share the same building.
Starkville's population is growing and real estate values have increased 25 percent over the past two years, Gregory said.
"People want to live in Starkville," she said.
Retail development has been a priority, she says. So has beautification, tourism and partnering with the local schools, she added.
It's difficult, also, to overstate the benefit and impact of a major university with an SEC sports program.
Starkville and Columbus are two very different towns, each with its own culture and focus.
Just as there are those in Starkville envious of the Link's successes, there are those in Columbus who long for the quality of life focus of its neighbor.
Perhaps each of us could learn from the other.
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