October 17, 2012 11:28:10 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
By the time the presidential election is over, the Golden Triangle will be immersed in a new campaign as Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins hits the trail, touting his message of regional cooperation as a fast track to economic growth.
The stump speeches began Tuesday with a visit to the Columbus Rotary Club, where Higgins mainly hit the highlights of the plan. By the end of the month, the Link will be no more, replaced with a new, tri-county coalition -- the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link. And in two years, the metamorphosis will be complete, spawning a fully-functional Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority.
West Point and Clay County joined the coalition in April, and Higgins presented it to the Starkville Board of Aldermen Tuesday night for the board's approval. The board voted 5-2 to table the contract after concerns were raised by Starkville Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk about its benefits for Starkville.
The timeline calls for Starkville and Oktibbeha County to sign contracts this month, after which Higgins will ramp up his information campaign, making presentations and inviting input from community members, civic clubs and elected officials.
The organization is expected to operate on a $2.3 million to $2.5 million budget annually, with 70 percent coming from public funds and 30 percent from private investments.
Though each county will have the option to levy up to a 2-mill tax to meet the public funding requirement, Higgins said he does not expect increased taxes in Lowndes and Clay counties.
The concept is simple: Each county will have a dedicated economic development recruiter assigned to promote its assets, minimize its weaknesses and sell, sell, sell.
Higgins dismissed the idea of one county benefiting at the expense of the others, saying the recruiters will concurrently pitch their territories and serve as advocates for their communities.
"The deal decides where the deal goes -- today, yesterday and always," Higgins said.
Lowndes County has the Golden Triangle Regional Aerospace Industrial Park, which boasts abundant land, two megasites certified by the Tennessee Valley Authority and access to three railroads, two U.S. highways, two seaports and one airport.
"We've got something out there that doesn't exist in most places," Higgins said. "We're in better shape than almost any place around."
Economically speaking, most of Mississippi is in better shape than West Point and Clay County, which have struggled since the 2007 closing of the Sara Lee plant. Nearly 2,000 people lost jobs, and while some found employment at West Point's Navistar plant, massive layoffs in 2010 -- combined with the recession -- sent Clay County into economic free fall.
Unemployment hovered at 16.4 percent in August, giving Clay the distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the state.
"West Point has had more losses than wins," Higgins acknowledged Tuesday. "Show me one place that's had more bad luck than West Point."
But West Point has abundant power and land, along with a brand-new, TVA-certified megasite, and it has caught the eye of at least two potential industries.
Starkville has limited water, sewer and electricity, but as the home of Mississippi State University, it holds its own unique place in the regional portfolio.
As deals get fewer and farther between, regionalism emerges as a way to secure political leverage and capture state dollars, while providing a stronger brand for industrial recruitment, Higgins believes.
He sees a future of more aerospace industries, steel mills, chemical plants and advanced, heavy manufacturing.
Operations already in place, like Paccar and Severstal, are doing well, and KiOR officials told him they expect production to begin by the end of the year.
"I watched this community go from zero expectations to a sense of entitlement," Higgins told Rotarians, contrasting the county's outlook five years ago to that of today.
Now, as he extends his platform to Oktibbeha and Clay, elected officials are hoping that they, too, have backed the right man.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.