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CLEDA shepherds five big projects in Golden Triangle

Columbus — The folks at the Columbus Lowndes County Economic Development Association (CLEDA) have achieved a new level of multi-tasking.

The business community is shepherding five major projects into the Golden Triangle area in 2005, including arguably this year’s largest economic development project in North America. Two major expansions are underway, and at least a couple of corporations are mulling building on the 1,400-acre, Tennessee Valley Authority-certified Lowndes County-Golden Triangle Megasite.

“We could theoretically be working a dozen deals in this fiscal year,” said CLEDA CEO Joe Higgins. “And we’ve still got half a year to go.”

On May 13, more good news came to Columbus. Instead of closing the Columbus Air Force Base, the Pentagon proposed additional personnel and missions for the military operation.

“If we’d lost our base, we’d have taken one or two steps forward and three or four steps back,” said Higgins. “Plus, we get to grow the base. That’s good stuff.”

$821M in investment; 1,200 new jobs

The projects underway in the Golden Triangle area represent investments totaling $821 million and the creation of more than 1,200 jobs in an area that features 261,000 residents located within a 50-minute drive. This lineup excludes American Eurocopter, which announced the company had won a $75-million, five-year government contract, just as it was settling into a new 85,500-square-foot manufacturing facility at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA). The subsidiary of Eurocopter, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) North America, won the contract to support the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by supplying more than 55 aircraft to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.

“Eurocopter should ramp up to 125 jobs by mid-summer,” said CLEDA executive director Charleigh Ford. “There’s a second phase that involves job creation regarding a Coast Guard contract, but that has not yet been signed or awarded.”

SteelCorr, Aurora, Baldor, Tally Defense Systems and a project called Pacesetter represent the five projects being groomed in 2005. In one instance, Ford and Higgins signed a deal in record time with a company that had publicly hinted about locating across state lines.

Getting it done

“The SteelCorr guys walked into our office on October 14, and said they needed to close a deal by January 28,” recalled Ford. “We worked like crazy to get everything done.”

Speculation had swirled that SteelCorr CEO John Correnti had selected a site in Osceola, Ark., a Mississippi River port city of 10,000 that housed two Nucor steel plants and a local community college steel-training program, for his new $650-million technologically-advanced steel mini mill. Instead, a deal was inked to build the plant in Lowndes County.

“We’re looking at the end of June before everything’s done because so many people are touching and feeling this project,” said Ford.

Eyeing construction

Signaling that construction on the SteelCorr project would begin soon, Higgins met with more than 500 construction industry folks at an information fair May 20. “The company is already working with contractors to secure quotes,” said Higgins. “Soon, we’ll have a schedule of contracts with a project timeline on our website.” The CLEDA Web site can be accessed at cldlink.org.

The SteelCorr project will create 450 jobs with an average annual salary of $70,000 plus competitive fringe benefits and up to 1,000 indirect jobs to the Golden Triangle area, making it among the state’s top-paying manufacturing jobs. It has been described as “the best thing since Nissan.”

“The most notable thing of late is that we are going to allow SteelCorr to sublease part of that 1,400 acres to other suppliers, vendors and processors,” said Higgins. “Probably 250 acres, and maybe as many as 500 acres of additional development, will be occupied by five to nine of those folks.”

Defense and more

Construction should begin in June for a $7-million facility located on 640 acres of leased land in the south part of Lowndes County for Talley Defense Systems, a manufacturer of propellant-based products for the defense industry. The three-building complex, which will accommodate assembly, administration and storage, will eventually house up to 100 workers making an average of $40,000 per year to produce several versions of shoulder-mounted weapons used by the Army and the Marines.

“We worked closely with Congressman (Roger) Wicker’s office and the defense industry,” said Ford. “They decided to locate in Mississippi and we got it.”

Baldor Electric Company, makers of industrial electric motors, drives and generators, is moving from its present 160,000-square-foot location in the old Columbus South Industrial Park, its home for 40 years, into a new $21-million, 300,000-square-foot plant designed to expand twice that size. Another 150 to 175 jobs will be added to its workforce of 250.

“They’ve added in piecemeal and are absolutely landlocked,” said Ford. “They could have built a plant anywhere in the world, yet they chose to remain in Lowndes County. What better testament to a favorable business climate?”

Aurora Flight Sciences, a manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and UAV components for the research, defense and homeland security markets, has been building one-third scale models of the Heron 1 UAV at Mississippi State University, readying to build a $7.5-million, 65,000-square-foot production facility opposite Eurocopter at GTRA.

The production schedule for the joint venture between Northrop Grumman, Israel Aircraft Industries and Aurora calls for three Heron 1 UAVs to be built in 2005, a dozen in 2006 and 18 per year beginning in 2007. By the end of 2006, 100 people will be on the payroll.

Production of the Hunter II UAV should begin with three units in 2006. When the company hits full production in 2009, 350 people will be on the payroll. The lowest pay will be $17 per hour; one-third of the jobs will pay six figures, said Ford.

“The sizzle isn’t the number of jobs or the wages, it’s the fact that we’re making unmanned drones,” said Ford. “That’s out of something sci-fi.”

The Caledonia gas storage project better known as Pacesetter, represents a $100 million investment for Caledonia Energy Partners. The company plans to use an existing reservoir for up to 330 million cubic feet of storage.

“The Caledonia project will only create about 10 jobs, but more importantly, it will pay $1 million to our schools in taxes, and $500,000 to Lowndes County in non-exempt taxes,” said Wiggins.

Weyerhaeuser Company Columbus Modified Fiber Plant is planning a $35-million expansion, and another existing business in Lowndes County, which Ford could not disclose, plans to add 125 jobs within the next year.

“We’ve replaced the low-wage manufacturing jobs we lost with all high-tech jobs,” said Wiggins. “We’re on a roll.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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