Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha counties explore partnership

Representatives from the three Golden Triangle counties have formed a steering committee to explore the possibility of forming an umbrella organization charged with spurring economic development in the region.

The committee held its first meeting last week, representing the first step toward a partnership among entities that have traditionally carried on a governmental and industrial rivalry.

Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman, who sits on the committee, said last Tuesday’s meeting was a “get-to-know-you session more than anything else.”

“As far as what an organization will or would ultimately look like, I think it’s premature to say at this point. I think something all the cities and counties would agree on is that the opportunity is tremendous. The Golden Triangle has many assets. The prospect of having a regional organization that can package all of those assets and sell the region as a whole offers much promise for greater economic development prospects for everybody.”

The idea of cooperation among Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties goes back at least 40 years, to the construction of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus. There are examples of that cooperation being rejected, such as when voters in each county were asked in the 1970s to approve a bond issue to build an industrial park to serve the entire area. Voters in Clay County approved it; those in Lowndes and Oktibbeha did not.

The latest attempt to partner the three communities has a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 14 to either put an organization together or abandon the effort. Wiseman would make no guarantees what would come out of the next few meetings — the next one is scheduled for the first week of August — but said what is certain is that the days of small communities competing against each other for large industrial developments are over. Instead, Wiseman said, everybody has to pull in the same direction.

“It’s a sign of the times. What everybody realizes increasingly in small and mid-size communities is that in order to maximize advantages and minimize disadvantages as compared to metropolitan areas, it is necessary to work as a regional team. I think over the last decade that’s a trend you’ve seen building. Our best opportunities lie in cooperation.”

Jackie Edwards, president of the West Point Growth Alliance, echoed that in a press release.

“When one county does well, we all achieve success,” said Edwards, one of two Clay County representatives on the steering committee.

Wiseman said the biggest problem small and medium-sized communities run into in pursuing an industrial development prospect is relatively small populations, which in turn chokes the available workforce. Combine that with limited transportation infrastructure and towns like Starkville are at a severe disadvantage against cities like Jackson. The only way to overcome that, he said, is to pool those types of resources together.

“Starkville has 24,000 residents,” Wiseman said. “This region has well over 100,000 residents. Each of the communities in addition to marketing the unique, desirable small-town quality of life is also able to market a population that is much larger than only the population that lives in their community. And no one community has all of the pieces of the transportation puzzle that many industrial prospects might be looking for. But together, the communities could have a multi-modal transportation package that could rival any metropolitan area. This is a huge opportunity. I think, if this comes together, this has the potential to be an economic development organization that could rival anywhere in the state of Mississippi.”

The Columbus-Lowndes Development Link would play some role in getting a regional organization off the ground, said CEO Joe Max Higgins.

Before that happens, there’s a long list of questions that need answers — how will the organization be funded? How will it be governed? Who will lead a transition?

“There are so many moving parts to it,” Higgins said. “It’s like spinning the plates. It has a lot of personalities. There are politicians involved — turf, historic rivalries, all those things are going against you. The thing that’s going for you is that if you put the three counties together, you end up with some of the best assets the Southeast United States has to offer that you could sell together without piecemealing it.”

The idea for the partnership developed when Starkville lost its economic development chief earlier this year. That’s exactly how a new partnership between the Link and West Point and Clay County started, Higgins said. The Link will recruit new industrial development for West Point and Clay County under a deal what was consummated in April.

“When West Point found themselves without somebody, we went over and worked out a deal with them,” Higgins said. “Well, it wasn’t very long that Starkville found themselves without somebody. So we’ve done the same thing with them that we did with West Point in the early days.”

Partnerships like this are more necessary now than they’ve ever been, Higgins said, simply because the cost of pursuing a large prospect is more than one small, stand-alone office can absorb.

“The days are gone where you can fund your chamber of commerce at $150,000 and have something that can compete. The other thing is, quite frankly, the federal and state politicians want to see regional cooperation when you ask them for funding for a project.

“Whether we ever form a formal organization — and I’m optimistic we will — we’re still going to have to do projects where we cooperate with one another. It sounds hokey and all that, but I’m telling you, the cost of doing this business has gone up so much, that it’s hard to go it alone.”

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