By JACK WEATHERLY
What? You haven’t heard of the Golden Triangle of Mississippi?
Then you just moved here.
Or maybe you don’t believe in miracles.
Or maybe you don’t watch PBS or read the Atlantic.
That’s understandable, because those are not mass audience markets.
But surely you caught “60 Minutes” Dec. 4 on CBS. Or at least heard about it.
It was all about an oasis of American advanced manufacturing.
And it was mainly about Joe Max Higgins, the leader of the LINK, which is the economic development engine for the Golden Triangle.
The area defined by Columbus, Starkville and West Point began making a name for itself after 2004, when it landed the first TVA megasite.
Now it has three (plus one that doesn’t have the official stamp) out of the nine in the whole 80,000-square-mile region that makes up the TVA, which was founded as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal for the hard-hit rural region.
Was it luck that he stumbled across the megasites?
Not to hear him tell it.
He was among developers who went to Nashville in 2004 from across the region that covers most of Tennessee and portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky.
He came prepared with a thick dossier on the three Golden Triangle counties – Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay.
He listened intently and counted on his fingers the assets that were necessary to qualify for a megasite.
One thousand acres (check), environmentally clean (check) accessible to transportation and utilities (check and check) and so on.
Higgins, a plain-spoken, enthusiastic man with a growl of a voice, told his peers that he thought his region qualified for – not one, but two megasites.
That didn’t go over well, said Higgins, who talks as fast as he thinks, which is fast.
Turns out the first go-round the Golden Triangle got one.
The next year, the LINK landed a $945 million steel plant to be built by SeverCorr.
From the state, the company got a $25 million grant and $10 million loan for infrastructure plus breaks on state and local taxes, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The county contributed the land, a $5 million infrastructure grant and a cut of about 40 percent on real estate taxes. Together, the incentives were worth about $100 million, according to the fed.
Overall, the Triangle has created 5,900 jobs and attracted $5.9 billion in private investment since 2003, when Higgins arrived.
And it’s not just jobs for jobs’ sake, Higgins emphasizes.
Paccar, which makes power trains for heavy-duty trucks, typically pays $40,000 a year, according to the Link.
Steel Dynamics employs about 650 at $70,000 a year on average.
But there is one key to the Golden Triangle success that can’t be duplicated just anywhere.
The mega-sites, which position the community with a “shovel ready” location and cheap electrical service from TVA.
In 2011, SeverCorr doubled in size by investing $550 million.
SeverCorr was in part named for John Correnti (who died in August 2015), a legend in the steel industry who headed up a minority ownership group – and with whom Higgins had a falling out. (More on that in the accompanying story.)
It was sold outright to the Russian company, Severstal, in 2012, which then sold it to its current owner, Steel Dynamics.
“60 Minutes didn’t just find us,” Higgins said, referring to the PBS report and Atlantic articles by James Fallows and his wife, Deborah.
But when the CBS crew did come it camped out for a couple of weeks. Higgins estimates that they shot 150 hours of film for the 13-minute segment.
The exposure has been immeasurably good, he said.
In the first 24 hours, the Golden Triangle was contacted by 25 companies, “some of which appear to be very, very legitimate,” Higgins said.
With that came unrealistic expectations: finding a cure for cancer, building “solar streets,” a woman in West Virginia wanting him to rebuild her town devastated by a flood.
Sean Hannity the radio and Fox News commentator, interviewed Higgins and even suggested that President-elect Donald Trump might want Higgins to head up an effort to save the Rust Belt. Higgins demurred.
Two book publishers have approached him.
He has been booked to be the keynote speaker before the International Economic Development Council, which will meet next year in Little Rock.
“That’s the membership organization for economic developers worldwide.”
“But the best one is we got contacted by a Nascar guy. The father of a young driver said that ‘me and my son were moved by [the ‘60 Minutes’ segment].’ We want to put your logo on our car. We want to bring you to Daytona. We want you to meet all the sponsors,’” such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot.
The Triangle’s story is one thing. Joe Max Higgins’ story is another thing altogether.
The Paragould, Ark., native enrolled at Arkansas State University and proceeded to party for two years.
His dad told him to get a job, and he did for two years on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
Deciding he’d had enough of the roughneck life, he begged ASU to take him back, but the administration said his grades were so low that he needed to retake a lot of courses to remove all those F’s.
But Joe Max said no, he would push ahead, even though it would be nigh-on to impossible to achieve a minimum overall grade point average.
But the young Higgins did, and then some, finishing with a 2.66 average, with 17 hours of F’s and 15 hours of D’s still on his transcript.
He learned how to pull himself up by his bootstraps, no doubt a lesson he applied to the three-county region that would become his laboratory.
Asked if he is pretty good at math, given that he eats, sleeps and drinks figures, he said: “No, I’m pretty good at numbers, remembering them.”
He majored in geography and minored in urban and regional planning.
And discovered that he had innate skill: working a deal.
That led him to success at Bond Engineering in Marion, Ark.
Where he helped them how to maximize profits.
Higgins credits Jerome Alford, whom he calls a “Renaissance man,” as teaching him “the finer points of problem-solving.”
Alford was the first to call and congratulate him after “60 Minutes.”
Alford said in an interview last week that “I may have been able to teach him how to think – but I didn’t have to teach him how to cuss,” Alford said with a laugh.
He illustrated a humorous story of sending the young Higgins to north Arkansas to explore putting in a water system.
Alford asked Higgins if he knew about water witching.
“You don’t believe in that s*** do you?” the charge said.
No, but people up there do, his boss retorted.
Bond Engineering advertised for water witchers, and four responded.
One man’s dowsing rod paused and quivered over a particular spot.
Bond drilled at the spot, and hit a gusher – 400 gallons a minute, Alford said. And it’s still a dependable water source to this day, he added.
So the protege learned an important lesson on his way to becoming a rainmaker – learn how your clients think.
Higgins’ vanity license plate spells out his philosophy: 2EQLAST, translated: “If you finish second, it’s the same as last.”
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