Lowndes County pursuing second mega deal

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: February 27,2006

Columbus — Earlier this month, Lowndes County supervisors agreed to take action toward issuing $23 million in bonds for The Crossroads, a 1,958-acre megasite west of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA) that officials hope to soon have certified automotive-ready by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

After a 30-day public comment period, the bond issue would be ready on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and the county would have 24 months to issue the bonds for the site located near the SeverCorr plant now under construction. The bond proceeds would purchase the property and fund basic infrastructure and site preparation work.

“We didn’t have any problem the last time we did this (for the first TVA-certified megasite), and we don’t anticipate any problems this go-round,” said Joe Higgins, CEO of The LINK.

Last month, when speculation intensified about Korean-based Hyundai seeking alternate sites in the South for its first American Kia plant, Higgins said The Crossroads, which is all under option, is “probably the cheapest site to develop in Mississippi. In a time when the state’s budget is under pressure and dealing with Katrina, it’s a bargain.”

Even if Kia does not consider the Columbus site, officials are optimistic about selling the site to companies wanting to benefit from the Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone created by Congress in December to spark development in the recovery of Hurricane Katrina. Lowndes County is one of the northern-most counties in the designated area. According to the federal legislation, new buildings must be completed by the end of 2008.

“A lot of companies come in and pick a site and spend literally weeks and months deciding how long everything will take,” said Higgins. “We’ve already completed a critical path timeline for everything that’s got to be done in the project. For example, if an automotive assembly plant selects our site on April 1, they’ll be producing vehicles by August 29, 2008. Everything’s already mapped out for them.”

Last week, after the Mississippi Business Journal went to press, Hyundai Kia Automotive Group chairman Mong-Koo Chung was reportedly in Montgomery, Ala., crossing sites off the short list of candidates for the $1.2-billion plant that would employ up to 2,500 workers. Industry watchers expect an announcement in March.

“Kia’s been looking longer than most,” said Higgins. “It hasn’t been that long ago that the time an automotive site began looking and picked a site was 12 months. The pundits tell us that process has shortened to four to six months. So any company coming in is going to want someone who can strike quick.”

A banner year

Last year was a banner one for The LINK, which shepherded five major projects into the Golden Triangle area, including SeverCorr, one of the year’s largest economic development coups in North America in 2005. Last May, officials breathed a sigh of relief when the Pentagon proposed additional personnel and mission for the Columbus Air Force Base instead of closing 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.”

The projects underway in the Golden Triangle area in 2005 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 won a $75-million, five-year government contract just as it was settling into a new 85,500-square-foot manufacturing facility at the 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 by supplying more than 55 aircraft to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.

On a mission

SteelCorr, Aurora, Baldor, Tally Defense Systems and a project called Pacesetter represented 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.

“The SteelCorr guys walked into our office on October 14, and said they needed to close a deal by January 28,” recalled Columbus Lowndes County Economic Development Association (CLEDA) executive director Charleigh Ford. “We worked like crazy to get everything done.”

Higgins reiterated that expediting the development of The Crossroads was not solely for the benefit of Kia.

“A lot of people think all we’re working is Kia, and that’s not true,” said Higgins. “Since we’ve controlled The Crossroads site, we’ve had three separate companies’ hands in active search right now. You can’t underscore enough the low cost development site that ours is. Quite frankly, we intend to be the next megasite location in Mississippi period. That’s our goal, our mission and what we’re working for. Nothing less than that.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

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