Big projects bring big challenges

By BRYAN DAVIS EDITOR,

The atmosphere was like that of winning a state championship. No, more like a World Series.

Hundreds of people, including elementary and high school kids, gathered in the Ritz Café in the Clay County city of West Point in late April 2013, celebrating the deal that brought Yokohama Tire to the job-anemic community.

I was the editor of The Daily Times Leader in West Point at the time, and I will attest that I was ecstatic for the town and its people, who had suffered the loss of thousands of jobs when Sara Lee shuttered its plant there about seven years prior.

In the months ahead of the announcement of the Yokohama deal, Clay County’s unemployment rate had shot up into the double digits.

In a last-ditch effort to try and bring a big time deal to the county, local leadership agreed to partner with Joe Max Higgins’ Development Link in Columbus.

Since the Yokohama deal, Higgins has become a national sensation when it comes to economic development. He’s the ultimate rainmaker.

A couple of years ago, he sat down for an entire segment with 60 Minutes to talk about his wins in the Golden Triangle.

When Gov. Phil Bryant leaves office, his legacy of job creation will be anchored by two tire plants, Yokohama and Continental, which is currently building a Hinds County production facility.

The economic development game is one of high risk and high reward.

Higgins even said as much during his pitch to the West Point and Starkville communities when he proposed creating the Golden Triangle Development Link.

He was up front about the possibility that any money invested might yield thousands of jobs or it might yield zero jobs.

Both communities took the risk, and West Point more than Starkville, has benefited greatly from that gamble.

Since that spring day, however, Higgins and the Development Link have been at odds with numerous people and organizations.

He’s had public sparring matches with Glen McCullough’s Mississippi Development Authority.

The city of Columbus became disgruntled with what they perceived was Higgins’ lack of effort in recruiting retail to the city, and last year, the board voted to exit the Development Link and stop contributing $100,000 a year to its efforts.

The most recent rift seems to be brewing with Yokohama itself.

This week, the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus released an article detailing turnover and underproduction at the Yokohama plant in West Point, which currently employs around 660, according to the Dispatch.

Yokohama was quick to lay the blame for coming up short of its production goals squarely on the local workforce.

Higgins and the Development Link were just as quick to point out that the company is now on its third human resources director in its short existence in West Point.

He also noted that many of the other industries that have been operating in the Golden Triangle for years are expanding and hiring more employees. They have heard no complaints from these other companies about the local workforce, he said.

Every community, including Sunflower County, wants jobs.

And they want them by the hundreds, and sometimes thousands.  While massive projects like Yokohama and Continental are more of the exception than the norm in economic development, they also come with their unique challenges.

It’s almost like that old saying, the more money you have, the more problems you have.

It’s nice to be on the winning side of a project like that, and there’s nothing more I’d rather see for Sunflower County than what I witnessed first-hand six years ago in West Point.

I have no doubt that one day we will have our Yokohama moment, but I think Sunflower County has a lot to be thankful for.

There’s a great base of small businesses that continue to grow here. Large companies like Entergy, which is building a giant solar panel plant near Ruleville, continue to take an interest in growing in the area.

There is plenty of room for more small businesses to start and grow here.

Nobody is going to turn down a chance to land a giant company, with hundreds or thousands of jobs, but there’s something to be said about not having to deal with the issues that often come with those deals.

Plus, small business growth means potential population growth.

If Sunflower County, and all of its municipalities continue to grow and cultivate small businesses, as well as population, we’ll have less need of the giant smokestacks.

That’s not to say we don’t want a big business with lots of jobs, but a community that has a growing population and lots of jobs already might have the upper hand in negotiating with a larger company.

And when that project does come along, we experience fewer of the negative challenges that accompany them.

 

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