October 7, 2013 10:29:19 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
As economic developers and business representatives shook hands after C Spire announced it will construct a $22 million data-processing facility in Starkville, local leaders trumped up the successful relationship between Oktibbeha County and the Golden Triangle Development Link, and set their sights on the next job-producing investment.
Although the C Spire investment represents a small number of initial jobs - additional expansion phases are planned and could require further hiring - officials are trumping up what Mayor Parker Wiseman called the "optical effect" of the deal: Starkville is open for business.
"Don't tell me anymore that you can't get a deal done in Starkville. We can and did," Link CEO Joe Max Higgins proudly said Thursday between handshakes. "Success brings success."
Prior to last year's tri-county economic development agreement, officials quietly acknowledged the perceived difficulty in attracting significant jobs packages over the years to Oktibbeha County, while residents watched Lowndes County secure major developments. In just 11 months, the Link not only added guidance and traction to local initiatives, it continued to record huge victories for the area, including Yokohama Tire Company's pledge to build a facility in Clay County.
"There is certainly an optical side of development. The momentum that a major project can build just by creating the perception that something significant is happening in a community is critical to snowballing success," Wiseman said. "One of the things we knew was critical from the outset of this regional partnership was that each county needed to see success in their own backyards. Now in just a year's time, you have major successes in Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Clay counties. That goes a long way toward sustaining the support that is necessary to maintain the aggressiveness of this organization."
Beyond the Link's dogged recruiting tactics, Higgins said the organization developed traction for economic development in Starkville in a variety of ways, including inventory efforts that helped developers understand their product better and educational efforts with elected officials that built cohesion with incentives geared toward enticement.
The biggest impact, Higgins said, is with the Link's Oktibbeha County representative, Joey Deason, and his ability to work with local officials and see the moving gears - infrastructure needs, zoning requirements and enticement packages - associated with potential developments.
"Having the product is definitely the most important piece, but knowing it is the next biggest thing," Higgins said. "Joey's so damn smart. He knows how to organize a proposal and take it to the next step."
During the working phase of Project Cumulus, the former code name for C Spire's investment, Deason successfully lobbied both the Starkville Board of Aldermen and Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors for 10-year tax abatements for the Thad Cochran Research Park parcel that will house the Tier 3 processing center.
Both boards have also approved a combined $10 million in economic development bonds for future projects, a tool Deason previously said he would not use unless the Link was close to landing a major job-producing development in the same vein as Yokohama's investment.
"It's (the Link's) resources and personnel," Wiseman said referring to what makes the agency one of the top economic development entities in the state. "Outside of (the Mississippi Development Authority), there is not a single public or private Mississippi organization that brings as much talent to the table for industrial recruitment as the Link does. As for tri-county success, we're all sharing resources now, and we're aided by economies of scale. The cities' and counties' governments, businesses and private investors are all contributing to the overall success of the Golden Triangle."
So what's next for Starkville and Oktibbeha County? In the private world of economic speculation, investors and developers rarely publically disclose many details with ongoing projects before the ink has dried on deeds and pledges.
Deason did confirm last month the Link is developing plans to construct a speculative building at the Starkville Industrial Park to lure developers. A speculative building - "spec building" for short - is designed with current market conditions in mind. Deason said in September the market favored facilities which can handle significant in-house construction efforts.
While Starkville has successfully marketed itself as a high-tech job destination with ties to a major research institution, manufacturing jobs would give employment opportunities to a broader segment of the community. Oktibbeha County's unemployment rate was last measured at 8.8 percent in August, down from July's 9.7 percent estimate. Clay County's latest figure - 18.3 percent - was the highest recorded in Mississippi, while Lowndes County's 9.5 percent remained about even with its July report.
Lowndes County has experienced success with the spec building strategy. Since CalStar, a sustainable building material manufacturer agreed to open a second plant this year at the facility located near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport - a move which should land 50-plus jobs - Higgins announced in September his intention to create another similar site.
Oktibbeha County's proposed spec building is still in the architectural planning stage. Deason previously said the Link would try to find grant monies to cover construction costs.
Deason also submitted Cornerstone Park, an industrial site located south of the Miss. Highway 12 and Miss. Highway 25 bypass, for at least two economic development projects after 4-County Electric Power Association confirmed it can commit more energy to the area than developers once believed. The site has capacity in terms of water and sewer, but 4-County's 2-megawatt commitment now allows the Link to aggressively market the 225-acre, Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority-owned site.
Link officials are also working on smaller plans to make Oktibbeha County sites shovel-ready for developers. Higgins confirmed the organization will attempt to find grant monies to cover tree removals at local sites, a project Deason first briefed OCEDA members about in September. Numerous other environmental surveys - Higgins refers to these as "bug-and-bunnies" - will be prepared in advance for potential suitors.
"We're a glass-half-full sort of group when it comes to what can happen in Oktibbeha County," Higgins said. "We're creating a sense of urgency in the county while making sure everyone, from elected leaders to the business community, knows we're all on the same team."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch