WEST POINT — West Point citizens seem to agree on two things the city needs: jobs and change.
With fleeting industry and little economic development, West Point has remained relatively dormant for some time.
A number equivalent to about 11 percent of the city”s population — 1,200 people — lost their jobs in March 2007 when the Sara Lee Processing Plant closed. By May, another employer announced plans to bid farewell to West Point. Best Textiles International, a tablecloth and linen producer, decided to close its West Point plant and outsource the jobs to Cambodia and Mexico, idling 30 workers.
“We need jobs,” said George Washington Thomas, a lifelong West Point resident. “There has to be a change made.”
“We need some jobs, definitely,” echoed James Mitchell, who also lives in West Point and lost his job several weeks ago. “The city needs to do a whole lot.”
Rosie Rambus, of West Point, who is taking classes at East Mississippi Community College, recently lost her unemployment benefits and has been looking for a job for months.
“I”m not really sure what needs to happen, but a whole lot needs to happen. We have to have some jobs in West Point,” she said.
Neither Thomas nor Rambus wanted to say where they previously had been employed.
Many feel the answer to West Point”s economic concerns and the key to the revitalization of the old company town is cooperation.
Richard Ramsey, curator of the Howlin” Wolf Blues Museum, was born and raised in West Point; he believes tourism will help save his home town.
“We”re definitely making some strides; of course, we need to tighten up our tourism aspect,” he said. “We need to expand the Howlin” Wolf Blues Museum.”
Part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, the museum has received visitors from all over the country. Pete Townshend of The Who even donated a guitar to the facility, illustrating Ramsey”s point: Great things are possible for the city if people begin to think progressively.
“I”m for a progressive West Point,” he said. “We need to look forward in these hard economic times. We need to work together, and we need more volunteers to step up.”
In recent months, the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance has acted as an arbiter between the West Point and Clay County governments.
“I am so pleased to see the city and county working together with the Growth Alliance in order to coordinate our efforts to make West Point and Clay County a better place to live and work,” said Growth Alliance Board Chairman Michelle Easterling. “We are making strides, even in the dourest of economic conditions. I believe we all realize that we can move our community forward if we unite on common principles and objectives.
“That being said, I would challenge our Board of Selectmen and supervisors — those serving now as well as in the future — to continue and expand our partnership in order to better serve our community.”
Recently, the city and county have been working together to land the expansion of Ellis Steel. The manufacturer has been planning to locate a subsidiary company, Fabricator Supply, in the area. The city and county worked closely to ensure the awarding of a Community Block Development Grant to help fund the project.
Clay County Board of Supervisors President Shelton Deans, who has been on the board for nearly 18 years, said cooperation is a long time coming.
“We have a good chance to bring our city and county forward,” said Deans. “I feel the (Growth Alliance) plays a major part in something that should have been going on 20 years ago in Clay County and West Point. To me, it seems like the county was steered in a direction by one or two people.
“To me, that just don”t work. If you have a whole group of people together you”re going to make something happen. Just one or two people”s ideas don”t get it. I feel like that”s where we are today. Now you”ve got several people getting their hand on the steering wheel, and I feel things are going to turn around for everybody and not just a few.”
Outside the politics
When the Growth Alliance was first conceived, it was designed to stand outside the politics of the day, which is the reason many West Point leaders see it as the best means of intergovernmental communication.
“Cooperation between the two local governments is the key to an effective revitalization of the community,” said Mayor Scott Ross. “It is most easily demonstrated throughout the Growth Alliance. So the city and county are equal partners in funding the Growth Alliance, it was set up that way. It was also set up to survive administrations. It should outlast current office holders.”
Recently, there has been a changing of the guard at the Growth Alliance. At the beginning of 2009 long-time Growth Alliance President Tim Climer left West Point and was replaced by Jeff Rowell. Originally from Heidelberg, Rowell comes to the Clay County city by way of Natchez, where he was executive director of the Natchez/Adams County development authority.
“With the growth in Columbus, there is going to be trickle down from that, it”s going to be up to us to rally the troops,” said Rowell.
“The way I see West Point and Clay County is, we have all the tools to succeed economically. I”m real aware of the economic situation now, but the real challenge is to get local people on the same page in understanding what our potential is and how we”re going to reach that potential.”
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.