September 15, 2012 10:07:35 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - firstname.lastname@example.org
It is a marriage. It is a gamble. It is the birth of a partnership area leaders hope will grow strong and become an economic force to be reckoned with, spawning job creation, opportunity and prosperity for generations to come.
Friday afternoon, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins and a seven-person steering committee proudly presented their "baby" to a packed house at East Mississippi Community College's Lyceum Auditorium.
And finally, after months of speculation, residents of Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties got a chance to see the underpinnings of a highly-touted joint economic development coalition between the three communities.
At its heart, the new organization will be something akin to the Link on steroids. By next month, once Starkville and Oktibbeha sign onto the deal, the Link as it is now known will no longer exist, replaced instead by a two-year, temporary consortium -- the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link. In January 2014, the group will petition the Legislature for approval to form the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority, slated to be fully governed, funded and functional by October 2014.
Speculation of Oktibbeha and Starkville's potential involvement surfaced in April, following a pomp-filled signing ceremony between the Link and the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance. The document promised the Link $350,000 annually for the next three years, and in exchange, Higgins vowed to woo economic development to the job-starved county, where unemployment rates continued to outpace the region at 18.9 percent in July.
The Greater Starkville Development Partnership is expected to sign a similar contract next month, and the search will begin for someone to work under the Link umbrella to recruit economic development for Oktibbeha County and Starkville. Ron Maloney, of Sarasota, Fla., was hired in late July to fulfill that role for Clay County and West Point.
Though Higgins has dodged the question for months, steering committee members confirmed Friday that they expect him to become CEO of the new organization. If he accepts, his current employment contract with the Link will be rescinded or cancelled.
"We're marrying a winner," said Jack Wallace, president of the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority. "We're getting married to someone who already has the knowledge and the staff to help us generate quicker, better opportunities for Oktibbeha County."
And so begins the honeymoon phase of a marriage that county leaders believe is vital to their individual futures.
Funding: 'A calculated risk'
But risk is an inherent part of marriage, just as it is with economic development, and each county is hedging a bet, banking on Higgins' past success with turning dreams into dollars.
"What kind of gamble is this? You tell me," Higgins said. "There are a lot of communities that spend a lot of money annually and never have any success -- zero."
"We've been there," interjected Jackie Edwards, board president of the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance.
One of the bigger risks is financial.
The organization is expected to operate on a $2.3 million to $2.5 million budget annually, about 70 percent of which will be funded publicly and 30 percent privately. Presently the Link and Clay County are devoting $1.7 million to $1.8 million for economic development.
The public funding will be guaranteed by each county through as much as a 2-mill tax levy unless the county can fund its share through existing sources. Plans are for the organization's Foundation board to raise 30 percent of its funding by obtaining five-year commitments from the business and industrial community.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he sees it as "a calculated risk that has a high probability of paying off."
But with the value of a mill differing drastically from county to county, some will have to raise millage while others may see no increase at all, Higgins acknowledged.
Marvel Howard, president of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, said he is not anticipating a millage increase in Oktibbeha. Oktibbeha County Economic Development Association has promised $75,000 to $100,000 for the next two years, and though the county's fiscal year budget does not include a line item to fund the new organization, Wallace said Oktibbeha County can amend its budget with a board vote. Like in the case of Clay County, Starkville and Oktibbeha's contribution will collectively be $350,000.
Retail will not cease to be a priority, Wiseman said. Each county's Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau and Main Street organizations will continue to function as usual.
Economic recruitment for Starkville is expected to begin by promotion of the Cotton Mill Marketplace project, while West Point is pushing its new TVA megasite and Lowndes continues to court industry to Golden Triangle Regional Aerospace Industrial Park, formerly the Lowndes County Industrial Park.
A staff of nine
Initially, the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link will include four new Oktibbeha County directors on its the board, two of whom will be appointed to the executive committee, who will join Clay and Lowndes County representatives already in place.
Once the organization has transitioned into the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority, it will be headed by Higgins, who will hire and oversee an economic development director for each of the counties. Maloney is in place for Clay, and Higgins said Friday that current Link Vice President of Economic Development Brenda Lathan will be Maloney's counterpart in Lowndes. Higgins projects the new organization will employ nine people, including himself.
Higgins said he expects the organization to be "the gold standard" of regionalism, becoming the envy -- and the model -- for other areas.
Representatives for each county are expected to act and speak as one, promoting the organization's ideals and interests rather than touting one county over another. The counties will share resources and costs and develop regional strategies as opposed to a more isolationist approach.
Higgins and crew believe they are stronger together than they are apart, especially as the nation's economic picture continues to be hazy and economic deals become less frequent and more costly.
It's not unusual for a county to spend up to $170,000 trying to snare a company that may ultimately decide to locate elsewhere, Higgins said.
By joining forces, the three counties gain more political leverage while splitting costs, he said, and by promoting shared assets, they have a stronger, more comprehensive package to promote.
Investing in the regional partnership will result in a snowball effect, Howard believes. If it works as it should, each county should see an increase in jobs, resulting in increased demand for real estate, increased millage value and the building of a sustainable coalition.
Instead of a spirit of competition, the name of the game will be cooperation, he said.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.