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Columbus, Lowndes County eco dev organizations merge

COLUMBUS — As a consultant, Joe Higgins has visited dozens of communities giving motivational speeches about community and economic development. Through travels and meeting with communities, he has learned a lot about what does and does not work.

“I get to see what winners are doing right and what losers are doing wrong,” said Higgins, who was recently hired as president and CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link (CLDL), formerly the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Authority (CLEDA) and the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce. “When I walked in to Columbus, there was just a good feel. There is a positive atmosphere and attitude here that good things are going to happen.”

CLEDA and the chamber merged recently into the new CLDL, and conducted a nationwide search for the new president and CEO. Higgins was chosen to oversee a 24-member board, an executive committee, two vice presidents — one for economic development and the other for community development — and a staff.

Higgins was named to the Top 40 Under 40 in Arkansas Business in 2000, and is the former director of economic development and CEO of Paragould-Greene County (Arkansas) Chamber of Commerce. In that position Higgins was credited with work that helped attract $360 million in new development and 4,500 new industrial jobs since 1994.

Higgins also served as principal in The Higgins Group, a community and economic development consulting group that served more than 95 clients.

Higgins said the immediate goal is to get the CLEDA and chamber employees in a centralized office. The chamber will move into CLEDA’s offices at 1102 Main Street.

“After that our goal is simple,” Higgins said. “People in the community are supporting us to do job creation.”

In addition to working to recruit jobs and industry, he said community development initiative efforts will include supporting the Columbus Air Force Base, the Mississippi University for Women and the local community college.

His frequent travels to give motivational speeches on economic development have allowed Higgins to see the assets communities have in attracting new industry. He says the Golden Triangle has some assets a lot of other communities don’t have such as an airport, good railroads, a port, a large industrial park, a university and a community college all in same area.

“I’m leaving an area that has been very successful and has grown a lot of industrial jobs in recent years,” Higgins said. “They would die for the airport opportunities here for corporate fliers that come in to do business. The availability of the port and railroad are all big, big deals. Add to that the ‘W’ and the air force base, and you have some tools that, quite frankly, a lot of economic development organizations would love to have.

“They have a successful Main Street program. Columbus has one of the most vibrant downtowns of any community I have ever been in including larger cities. They have hit that stride with specialty shops downstairs, apartments upstairs, and young professionals moving into the apartments that support restaurants not just during lunch when people are working downtown. I didn’t have to leave where I was. They just knocked my socks off. From top to bottom you’re not going to find a team as good as what is already here.”

Charleigh Ford, the former executive director of CLEDA, has been named vice president of economic development for the Link. Ford said the merger of the two organizations has been considered for a while now.

“There is synergy to putting everything in one organization,” Ford said. “That is what is going on now across the country. At one time everybody was spinning their economic development off out of the chamber, and now everyone is putting them back together. It makes sense in this situation because there are some economies of scale we can benefit from.”

Ford will continue to do what he has been doing all along. The other vice president, who will be over community development, will fit the role formerly filled by the chamber president. Ford said that while there have never been turf battles between CLEDA and the chamber, the combined organization will be more effective for working together for the betterment of the community.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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