Plans to develop the proposed Innovation District’s 326 acres of rolling countryside for advanced manufacturing were moving along perfectly — governing bodies were days away from issuing bonds for infrastructure improvements and the park’s first tenant had been assured a lot — until the Golden Triangle Development LINK announced it would walk away from the site because of mounting concerns produced from due diligence studies.
Once experts said the site could have been home to a minor Native American settlement more than 500 years ago, LINK officials scrapped their plans. They have now turned their attention to scouting new properties, resetting the clock on possible bonds and placing a tenant in Cornerstone Park.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said his organization is evaluating potential properties for a new industrial park, but he wouldn’t disclose which specific parcels are under review. However, he said, the LINK is likely to look for a 250-350-acre site in northern or eastern Oktibbeha County that can be easily serviced by connecting infrastructure.
The future site could also fall outside Starkville’s incorporated territory, he said, but nothing is certain at this point.
“We’ve got a few we’ve elected to go further with exploring, but it’s like the song ‘Once Bitten, Twice Shy’ — before we get them very far, we’re going to get those sites in front of our archaeologists,” Higgins said. “We’re not going to write a blank check, but we want them to look at the land and tell us if there’s potential problems or if there’s a good chance we’ll be OK. he good news is that the realtors are coming out of the woodwork now. We’ve shifted some (potential tips) around, but we have to land on a good spot on the map in terms of flood plains, water, sewer and electricity.”
A move that had to happen
It wasn’t easy, but Higgins said the move to abandon the proposed Innovation District’s site — numerous parcels located near the Highway 25 and 182 interchange — “had to happen.”
Last month, Higgins and other LINK representatives broke the news to local elected officials. Making the site shovel-read for developments, he explained, could cost an additional $2 million and delay the park’s opening by at least 18 months.
Oktibbeha County, he said, could not afford to wait that long for an industrial park to open, and the LINK was not willing to waste political capital on asking for more money after obtaining a combined $10 million in bond pledges from county supervisors and city aldermen.
The Innovation District was the LINK’s first attempt at making the county a viable contender in the world of economic development. Oktibbeha’s only other formal industrial park, Cornerstone Park, is not seen as an enticing site for investment since its electrical capacity cannot support heavy manufacturing.
Officials previously predicted the 326-acre site would have provided about 1 million square feet of business space, 1,300 or more jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues depending on the LINK’s ability to attract investors.
‘Our jobs got harder’
Even though dirt had yet to formally turn on the Innovation District, Higgins said the LINK had lined up one investor for the park.
“They basically had a lot picked out,” he said.
That investment — Higgins did not disclose the company’s name but said it was a consumer goods manufacturer that would have warehousing and distribution capabilities — could still land in Cornerstone Park since its demand for electricity is minimal.
“That’s the key,” he said of its power demands.
But the small amount of traction at the established park isn’t expected to land a new wave of investments. 4-County Electric Power Association previously forecast an upgrade to Cornerstone’s capacity in 2017, but Higgins said that estimate was pushed back to the first quarter of 2018.
“We were assuming 2017, but that could have been at the end of the year. (The new estimate) is still about that same time,” he said. “People have always asked us if we could just throw money at (the power shortage) to solve it. Well, it’s not really that easy. It just takes time.”
“Throwing money at” or augmenting plans to the proposed Innovation District, Higgins said, wasn’t a viable alternative, either. Discussions with landowners about rolling back the land’s combined $3 million price tag in light of the due diligence reports never left the ground.
“It seems like some folks don’t want to let go of the idea of (the proposed Innovation District’s location). People ask if we can still develop it, and I’m not sure they understand the timing or the cost issues,” Higgins said. “Some even alleged we did all of this just to hurt Starkville and Oktibbeha, and that’s ridiculous.
“Think about it this way: We had a client we’re working with that had already picked out a lot, and these boards were days away from issuing bonds,” he added. “Quite frankly, nobody would have expected us to put anything in there until it was built. We were planning on doing infrastructure work around the construction of this plant. If we had put someone in there early, we would have been on autopilot for the rest of the year. Now we’re working nights and weekends to find more sites and contact property owners. Our jobs got harder the minute we walked away.”
‘Keep the powder dry’
While the LINK continues to search for an alternative to the Innovation District, officials will come back to the Starkville Board of Aldermen and Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors this May with new bond intent resolutions, Higgins said.
Because of timing issues, the county’s $5 million resolution rolls off the books this month. The city’s pledge won’t expire until September, and the delay between the two notices was caused because of the previous municipal election. The LINK, Higgins said, waited to approach aldermen because it wanted the new administration to make the decision about its own $5 million pledge, not the expiring term.
“You do that to keep the powder dry,” he said. “Basically, these resolutions will recognize the problems (with the Innovation District) and tell us to keep going, to find another site. It’ll void the last resolution (from the city) and reset the clock.”
If both boards approve the bond issuances for economic development projects, 2-mill tax levies are expected to follow and help retire the debt.
In the meantime, Higgins said the LINK will also begin working on a new development strategy: identifying single sites for investments looking to immediately locate to Starkville.
The LINK could find success with stand-alone sites because of the smaller demands on neighboring electrical, water and sewer systems.
“If you think Starkville will work for you, we’re going to find a site that will work. We can nickel and dime the infrastructure rather quickly to get someone in if needed,” he said. “We don’t always have to wait for a park to sell (Oktibbeha County).”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch