April 30, 2013 10:30:07 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
The Golden Triangle Regional Development Link lists 10 staff members on its website.
At the top of that hierarchy is CEO Joe Max Higgins, who has been the driving force of the economic development engine since his arrival in 2003.
Yet 20 minutes before Monday's official signing of the deal that would bring the massive Yokohama Tire Company manufacturing project to Clay County, Higgins was busy with placing placards in the seats for the obligatory swarm of elected officials, board members, project partners and other VIPs at the Ritz Theater and Conference Center in downtown West Point. It was the sort of task you might assume would be delegated to some low-level Link functionary.
As is to be expected on such occasions, there was no shortage of plaudits to be passed around during a 1 1/2 hour ceremony/pep rally. The Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, state representatives and senators and a U.S. senator and a U.S. representative were on hand. Like scavengers on carrion, they were careful not to assume credit for the deal, but were no less eager to accept it.
While it would be inappropriate to ignore the roles many of the 120 or so gathered dignitaries played in fashioning an agreement for what could ultimately become a $1.2 billion project employing as many as 2,000 workers, some roles were far more prominent than others.
From arranging the seating, to serving as the master of ceremonies, to driving one of the four-wheelers on a tour of the 500-acre Prairie Belt Powersite located about 10 miles northeast of West Point, Higgins' fingerprints were all over the celebration. In truth, his fingerprints have been on the project since the very start.
While an outsider attending Monday's event might have assumed the credit could be equally dispersed among a host of officials, Golden Triangle residents know who deserves the lion's share of the applause.
"Joe Higgins, we could never have done this without you and you know it," West Point Mayor Scott Ross flatly stated.
For his part, Higgins seemed to be everywhere Monday, pumping hands, laughing, joking; ever-busy, ever moving from one pocket of celebrants to another. Joe Max Higgins is a marvel to watch, this mechanical man of deal-making: Just wind him up and watch him click around the room creating alliances, talking deals, scheming, dreaming.
Monday was the sort of day Joe Max Higgins lives for and you suspect that Monday's event was more than just a triumph; it was an affirmation, maybe even a vindication, although Higgins would never admit that, of course.
Early on, he had established himself as something of an economic Midas at the Link. Here came Joe Max and major employers such as Severstal, Paccar, Aurora and Stark Aerospace followed in his charismatic wake.
But it had been a while since any of those big deals. Most recently, Higgins had found himself immersed in a 15-month exercise in futility also known as Silicor, a project that was supposed to have brought nearly 1,000 jobs to Lowndes County. That project collapsed four months ago and Higgins appeared to be keeping what, for him at least, would be considered a very low profile.
That would have been perfectly understandable, of course. Higgins' job is unique in a couple of respects. First, it's either hit or miss, a fact that Higgins displays on the vanity plates of his truck -- 2EQLAST (Second equals last). It is also very much a job where people are inclined to ask, "What have you done for me lately?"
Whatever damage Silicor inflicted on the Higgins brand, we know now that he had not retreated to the shadows to nurse his wounds. He was busy securing what could wind up becoming the biggest deal of his career.
We should have known.
The Yokohama deal did not restore Higgins to his former glory -- his aura has never been so great.
Roughly a year ago, when Higgins made his pitch to bring West Point into the Link, Ross said the city council gasped when they were told the cost of signing with the Link would almost double the amount of money they were spending on economic development to $350,000 per year.
"Now, it seems like a bargain, doesn't it?" Ross said Monday.
It's hard to argue otherwise. In Higgins, you get a guru of economic development, you get a guy who will arrange the seating.
That's a bargain indeed.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]