Home » OPINION » Columns » JACK WEATHERLY: GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI — Colonial Country Club, new job proof of the circle of life

JACK WEATHERLY: GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI — Colonial Country Club, new job proof of the circle of life

jack weatherlyWill we have to rethink our ideas on the rapture?

Not a soul is at the Colonial Country Club of Jackson on a crystalline winter day.

There appears to have been a sudden departure from the clubhouse.

Computer monitors are on. A capped bottle of Coors Light sits on a bar. Stemmed glasses are out, as if just used.

A few articles of sportswear lie on the carpet in the men’s locker room, which is tastefully appointed with dark-wood lockers, all standing open.

Did a surprise 3-for-1 special on drinks stampede the boys?

Climbing the curving stairs to the second level offers a view of the course, which looks like a pasture in need of a good bush-hogging.

A poster solves the mystery: “Colonial Country Club will cease operation May 4, 2014.”

That was the end for the club, but a group that bought the 152-acre property is praying for a mixed-use resurrection.

Forgive the mixture of sacred and profane, but, to continue in that vein, Disney calls it the Circle of Life.

•••

The ringtone said it all for me.

A man got a cellphone call in the lobby of the building where I now work in downtown Jackson.

It was an instrumental version of Muddy Waters’ blues classic “Manish Boy.”

Well, welcome back, I say to myself.

It’s the new old Mississippi.

For me, things here are in many ways the same, yet new since I took a job out of state 13 years ago at the end of 2001, only to return to where I’m a fifth generation Mississippi native on both sides of my family.

I asked someone if that makes me a 10th-generation native.

“Only if your families didn’t share the same house,” was the rejoinder, leaving me only to laugh.

You gotta laugh in Mississippi. Otherwise you’ll be crying more than is healthy.

Last in education, last in income, last in health.

Yet, when I left to become business editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, things were on the upswing in Mississippi.

WorldCom was the darling of Wall Street.  Bernie Ebbers, its chief executive, was a hero.

At an intimidating 6-foot-5, he favored cowboy boots and jeans and rose from coaching to become a captain of industry.

Living large was an understatement.

Worth $1.4 billion at the height of his career, he bought yachts and a 500,000-acre ranch in his native Canada, a 21,000-acre farm in Louisiana, 540,000 acres of timberlands in the South, and a minor league hockey team.

Shareholders and employees were reaping handsome benefits.

He and his company confounded the whole telecommunications industry: how could these hicks in Mississippi be outperforming everyone?

Easy. By cheating.

There was a lot of that going on in the Enron era. You remember: it was the national scandal before the banking meltdown.

What eventually amounted to a $11 billion scam began to surface in when I left in late 2001. Ebbers was convicted in federal court in 2005 of fraud and was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison, where he has been bunking for the past nine years with 1,400 other cowboys.

At the same time, Mississippi was in hot pursuit of Nissan. The fast and furious chase led to the mile-long vision of manufacturing beauty.

That was about a year after WorldCom cratered. Today, the plant employs about 6,000.

Next came the Toyota plant at Blue Springs.

There have been other successes, and other failures in the industrial development.

The failures stand to, or already have, cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The successes will produce millions in tax revenue.

Fresh from that “last-place” state, I arrived in Arkansas to find that economic development was measured in call-center jobs. I am not kidding. That’s what the Arkansas Economic Department Commission touted in its 2002 annual report.

Arkansas hadn’t even tried to land the Nissan plant. It did try for the Toyota facility, and lost.

It had sought what became a steel-making success story in Columbus, though a  $1.2 billion steel plant is under construction in Arkansas.

Well, there you have it from a veteran newbie.

» Jack Weatherly is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He can be reached at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or 601-364-1016.

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