STARKVILLE — It was a big day when more than 100 of the top community leaders of Starkville and Oktibbeha County attended the March 23 press conference at the TVA office in Starkville.
Tommy Tomlinson, chairman of the Greater Starkville Chamber of Commerce, hailed it as, “an end and a beginning.” David Thornell was introduced as the new president of a yet unnamed overall economic and community development organization. Dr. Malcolm Portera, president of Mississippi State University, called it “a milestone in the history of the community.”
It marked the climax of an improbable story that began some two years ago and has many heroes. And it marked the beginning of a story in which Thornell has all the earmarks of being the new community hero.
Starkville has a history of abortive attempts to unify business and political leadership for economic and community development. At least two efforts came apart due to turf problems and political infighting. Observers believed, and even community leaders admitted, that complacency brought on by the prosperity and stability of Mississippi State University was one of the major reasons for the failure of those efforts.
But this time, there was momentum.
One of the heroes of Tomlinson’s ending story is Jack Wallace, president of the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority (OCEDA) for the past three years.
OCEDA’s eight-member board of directors is made up of political appointees and office holders. As the owner of a construction and consulting firm, and a past chamber president, Wallace saw the need for the involvement of additional business leadership, and their resources, in economic development efforts.
He approached Rex Buffington and Peggy Reed, the president and president-elect of the Starkville Chamber, with the idea. They jumped into action.
An outside consultant was hired and a broad based “Vision 2005” committee was formed with hospital administrator Sonny Kelly as chairman. Included in the group were Wallace, nine other past chamber presidents, president of the Visitors & Convention Council (VCC) Robin Fant, Portera and 10 other business leaders. They resolved that the fund-raising would come only from the business and professional community — no public money.
“That group, with Sonny Kelly’s leadership, was varied enough, and good enough, to finally put together an infant organization to build on,” Wallace recalled. “All of us agreed that we had to take advantage of our unique assets that would take our economy to the next level, whatever that might be.”
Among other assets the Vision 2005 committee saw were graduates of Mississippi State in the high-tech fields of telecommunications, computer programming and advanced technology. They foresaw as many as 1,500 new jobs in those and related fields if there was a unified and concerted effort led by the business community.
They also knew that Portera had a successful history in leading efforts to attract Mercedes and other internationally known firms to Alabama. And now, Portera was on their team.
By spring 2000, a fund-raiser had been employed. Their survey reported that only $1.2 million could be raised over a five-year period. That was $300,000 short of the committee target, but they pressed on. Today, there are commitments for more than $1.3 million.
“We have already surpassed what the experts said could be raised here,” Tomlinson said, “And we have every intention of hitting that $1.5 million.”
When Mark Abernathy’s search committee started seeking the right executive for the new organization, they found that raising the money was the easy part.
From a list of 28 prospective economic developers, David Thornell’s name quickly emerged. He was the executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority in Scottsboro, Ala. Portera knows him well. He had worked with him in Alabama.
“I always watch for the bright young stars,” Portera said, “And David was one of the guys on my list. When I looked at his record and saw that he had $900 million in new capital investment and had landed two Japanese automotive-related companies in that little town (Scottsboro), I knew he was something special.”
Tomlinson said the committee was sold on him early. “Listen, he had victories. But what convinced us was when we met his family (referring to Thornell’s wife, Carol, and his sons, Blake, 15, and Brett, 8).”
There was a major problem — Thornell turned them down. He pointed out that there was no written agreement unifying the chamber of commerce, OCEDA and the VCC into one organization.
“I didn’t want to jump off the cliff on faith,” Thornell said.
That’s when the list of heroes of Tomlinson’s ending began to expand. Thornell became what he called “an unpaid consultant” in helping draw up a contract that would lump the organizations into one. Then something unheard of happened. People began giving up turf.
John Rucker, OCEDA’s executive director for nine years, said he would work under Thornell, and so did Lynn Witt, executive director of the VCC (for four months). And VCC president Fant got his board’s approval.
And here came Jack Wallace again pursuing his objective. With the approval of all the boards and all of the political bodies — that’s when Portera called Wallace “a magician” — they went back to Thornell. Search committee chairman Abernathy told him, “You’ve been successful where you are. Couldn’t you be more successful here with increased dollars and the university?” Thornell accepted.
“There never was a lightning bolt,” Thornell said. “This is just where the Lord wanted me to be.”
There’s no official organization name yet, but Wallace said that it will definitely have the word “partnership” in it. The board of directors will include nine members from the private sector — primarily the major contributors of the $1.3 million — the volunteer heads of the three merging groups, the president of the board of supervisors, the mayors of the three municipalities — Maben, Starkville and Sturgis — and the MSU president.
Less than a week after the press conference, Rucker and Thornell worked together on a prospect.
“We’ll do great as a team,” Rucker exulted. “I don’t know of another organization that has two CEDs (certified economic developers).”
Next on the list is organizing the board, naming the organization and the daunting task of financing a new building for the staffs of the new group.
As Tomlinson said, “People work better together when they drink from the same coffee pot.”
But all that’s in the future and the current heroes await the emergence of the new heroes.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com or (601) 485-7046. Johnson served as an economic development consultant in Starkville from August 1999-April 2000.