Businesses are thriving in the part of the state known as the Golden Triangle. Anchored by the cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point, 2006 was, for the most part, an economically positive year for the area. Fueled by a regional approach, a certified industrial megasite and Mississippi State University, technology is leading the charge.
The $880-million SeverCorr project is underway with 1,500 construction workers on site. Charleigh Ford, vice president of the Columbus-Lowndes County Development Link, says the huge company will probably start operation in February, employing 450 full-time workers.
“We were told to expect 12 other companies with as many as 1,000 jobs to follow SeverCorr,” he said. “We’re already seeing that with SMF Mill Craft and others are going to come.”
He also praises American Eurocopter, which will hire 200 additional people as it gears up to build the U.S. Army’s newest lightweight aircraft and Weyerhaeuser with a billion-dollar-plus investment in the southern part of Lowndes County. The giant paper company has a $30-million expansion for its highly technological operation at the airport industrial park. Lowndes Warehouse, a distribution center primarily dedicated to Weyerhaeuser, is located there, too.
Baldor Electric has built a new plant twice as large as its old facility. “That’s a huge compliment to us for a company that’s been here a long time to expand,” Ford said.
With a steady stream of proposals, he says the key to success in Columbus is the megasite, a concept first proposed by TVA.
“We applied and got it certified,” Ford said. “With the megasite, we save a company about six months of looking. We’ve got it ready.”
He credits the megasite with securing SeverCorr, and says The Link now has another one with 1,900 acres ready to bring more development to the area.
“The state has been good to us with grants and we’ve used it to keep our infrastructure up to date,” he said. “Everything is state-of-the-art and that helps. TVA, Mississippi Development Authority and MDOT are huge allies.”
Additionally, Ford points out the advantage of the thriving Columbus Air Force Base that escaped a federal round of base closings and has a great relationship with the community.
“We’ve got to be a full-service community and have things that appeal to companies to bring families here,” he added. “We’re certainly not sitting back and saying we have nothing to do.”
Growth has been big and diverse over the past year in Starkville, according to David Thornell, executive director of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. The growth has been mostly in technology and there have been no layoffs.
“The best thing for our organization was getting in our new building. It’s a positive step forward for us and gives us a sense of permanence,” he said. “For the economy, we really see the match taking place between the university and the community. We’ve finally created a true partnership.”
The increased commitment to research and technology at MSU sets Starkville apart from other communities, Thornell says. That commitment and partnership resulted in attracting four new software companies to Starkville during 2006.
“These are companies doing highly sophisticated technology and they have selected Starkville as the best place to locate for growth,” he said. “Also, we’re always pleased with growth by our existing companies. It’s a great vote of confidence when they choose to expand and invest more money here.”
Thornell points out those new jobs were not just in industry. The Oktibbeha County Hospital completed a $30-million-plus expansion and grew to 652 employees and an $18-million annual payroll. Retail and restaurants are growing with 21 ribbon cuttings this past year. Hotel occupancy is the highest level the city has ever had, and a Hilton Garden Inn will begin construction during the first quarter of 2007.
“We must stay ahead of the infrastructure needs. That is a challenge and will continue to be,” he said. “Our four-lane highways are complete and we’re in good shape with that. We have some municipal facilities that are expanding, and the sportsplex will be increased next year, too.”
Change is afoot in West Point and Clay County where Tim Climer is leading the complete revamping of the economic development organization. The West Point-Clay County Community Growth Alliance is setting up committees of volunteers and making plans to be a full partner in regional development.
“I’m new and the organization is new,” Climer said. “It’s been around in other forms but now has a new name, new board and new vision.”
He says all members of the organization agree that the number one focus is industry expansion and recruitment. The group is addressing the infrastructure needs of highways, ports and telecommunications.
“Other focus issues include education and workforce development with initiatives in regionalism; small business development; beautification of U.S. Highway 45-A; enhancing tourism and the retirement program; and rekindling the Main Street program here.”
The Main Street/Chamber of Commerce will be kicked off on January 10. Climer describes it as an”extensive deal for this community.” The Alliance hopes to host a tourism summit in February to find ways to better market West Point and Clay County.
“Tourism has been largely untapped. We have the Old Waverly Golf Club, Waverly Plantation and Mossy Oak Outlet Mall. Howlin’ Wolf is from here and the Prairie Arts and Howlin’ Wolf Festivals get a good response,” he said. “We’re looking to explore all of that at the summit, and we will invite people from MDA and other experts to help us.”
The community had a bit of bad luck in 2006 when jobs were lost at Griffin International Truck Company and the Sara Lee Corporation. However, Climer says things are looking up as Griffin, manufacturer of armored military vehicles, is optimistic about landing new government contracts.
“They may be bigger and we’re hopeful that we’ll know soon,” he said. “Sara Lee reduced their workforce from 1,452 to 1,050, but they remain our largest employer and one of the largest in the region. We’re thrilled to have them here.”
Ellis Steel is working on an expansion that includes a new warehouse with about 35 more jobs and a renovated former McDonald’s building to be used as office space.
“We have a great community and are excited about the direction we’re headed. We have some great plans,” Climer said. “We have many things going on here and we will be part of what’s going on in the region.”
The Golden Triangle’s newest economic developer would like to thank the area’s fellow organizations in Columbus and Starkville for the good things they’ve accomplished for the region, saying West Point is getting in place to do its part.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.