October 31, 2012 10:01:29 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
WEST POINT -- Vehicles crept along Sixth Street Tuesday night, edging onto the grassy shoulders, pausing in front of the Clay County Civic Center's packed driveways before resuming the search for a parking space.
Inside The Civic, a standing room-only crowd -- estimated at around 400 people -- stood in the dimly-lit auditorium and waited to get the first glimpse of hope.
In a county where unemployment hovers at 17.1 percent, the highest in the state, good times have been in short supply the past few years.
With the formation of the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority, a coalition between Clay, Oktibbeha and Lowndes counties (along with the cities of West Point, Starkville and Columbus), local officials and residents believe they stand a better chance of attracting industry to their job-starved towns.
And Tuesday night, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins unveiled West Point's "field of dreams," the Prairie Belt Powersite.
The 1,100-acre Tennessee Valley Authority-certified megasite, located northeast of West Point, is unique in that it is a shovel-ready powerhouse waiting for a tenant.
It has the capacity to provide 400 megawatts of redundant electric power, along with 7.5 million gallons of water and 2.5 million gallons of waste water treatment per day. Access to multi-modal transportation, college workforce training and a right-to-work labor pool rounds out the marketing package.
"This is the site people will be raving about all over the country and the world," said Jim McArthur, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority.
A two-minute promotional video, produced by Marketing Alliance of Jackson, drew a standing ovation.
Clay County Supervisor Luke Lummus was all smiles after the presentation, posing for pictures with other local officials and intermittently stopping to shake hands, slap backs and celebrate what he believes will bring the county out of the economic torpor it has struggled under since the 2007 closing of Sara Lee, formerly the Bryan Foods meat processing plant.
There's no doubt in his mind, he said, that the three counties are stronger together than apart.
"We've been struggling just to stay afloat the past four to six years," he said. "When Bryan Foods left, that was $21 million in assessed valuation that pulled out. This is our only chance. Our best chance. It's for the common good of all."
After the presentation, West Point native Mary Hampton, 40, examined a site map with her son, Bryson Garth, 17.
As a mother of a high-schooler and a college student, Hampton said she worries about future opportunities in West Point. It's a good place to live, and there's plenty of growth potential, but West Point lacks a solid foundation to carry it back to prosperity.
She hopes the megasite will provide that foundation.
"It gives us something to look forward to," she said. "We need jobs. We need futures for our children."
Willie Everson, 45, echoed her sentiments, saying it's been a long time since anyone in West Point enjoyed economic security.
"All the manufacturing here left," he said. "The unemployment rate is alarming."
Rumors of an upcoming layoff at West Point's Blazon Tube Company are equally alarming, especially in a county where the September's unemployment rate is at 17.1 percent.
But though Higgins said he is optimistic and excited about the area's future, he repeated his cautionary mantra.
"We've made it very clear: There's no guarantee we will succeed," he said. "But we believe with the assets here ... there's a reasonable expectation to land a substantial project in West Point and Clay County in the next three years."
"All roads lead here," the megasite's marketing materials boast.
The people of West Point and Clay County hope those roads will soon be paved with jobs.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.