The Golden Triangle Development LINK’s first Economic Development Update was a well-attended affair.
More than 100 elected officials, business executives, education administrators and citizens came to hear about projects the LINK is working on, and the keys to ensuring the projects continue to come.
LINK board chairman John Davis thanked the crowd for attending and encouraged them to ask the questions “most burning in their hearts” of executive director Joe Max Higgins.
Higgins introduced the crowd to the LINK’s process of attracting business and industry to the Golden Triangle. He said the art of landing deals has evolved from the days of backroom cigars. The work, he said, is competitive.
“There’s a lot more losers than winners out there,” Higgins said. “Most people aren’t succeeding.”
Higgins gave the crowd a detailed update on local industry, which The Dispatch reported on Thursday.
Much of the focus went to what draws business and jobs. Higgins said the primary needs are basic. Companies just want to know: how many acres are available; is it railroad accessible; is there a water source; does the area have airport access.
“They don’t say, ‘how many good schools and churches do you have?'” Higgins said. “It’s all about the dirt and the utilities.”
It’s no longer about how many people are in a 60- mile radius; it’s about how prepared those people are to work, Higgins said.
“They want to know how many community colleges, workforce development, and universities there are in the area,” Higgins said.
He said it wasn’t until being named one of the final three cities did Yokohama ask about local public schools and community life.
Workforce development, Higgins told the crowd, is the Achilles heel of most communities trying to woo industry. Now, “they want to know what you’ve got in your WorkKeys.”
WorkKeys is a test made by the producers of the ACT that assesses a person’s capacity to work in a manufacturing position. Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi, set to open this Fall in West Point, requires all of its employees score a “Silver” or higher on the WorkKeys test. This year, all local public schools voted to offer WorkKeys to their students during junior year of high school.
Higgins spoke at length of a planned workforce training facility for the Golden Triangle, which is being called “Communiversity.” He stressed the importance of the $38 million, 133,690 square foot structure the LINK is building in partnership with East Mississippi Community College in attracting more business.
A consultant told Higgins, “Your Achilles heel is workforce development and training. If you can get that solved, you have no limits to your future. You must build a facility that inspires people to go to work… We’ve got to get younger people out here understanding that there’s a future out here. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.”
Higgins said it’s up to the community to promote more education to improve outside perception of the state.
“This is Mississippi, folks, and I don’t mean to hurt any of your feelings, but there’s a reason we’re 49th, 50th, all that stuff,” Higgins said. “And when they hear Mississippi, a lot of these companies put their shields up.”
Communiversity has $31. 5 million raised thus far. The state legislature has put in $18 million over the past two sessions. Locally, Lowndes County put in $10 million; Oktibbeha County contributed $2.5 million; and Clay County approved $1 million toward the project. Higgins said $6.1 million remains, but that money is expected to come from the federal government.
Construction on Communiversity is slated to break ground in the Summer 2016.
GTRA west-bound flights
Mike Hainsey, director of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, answered a crowd question about west-bound air service, a feature GTRA has received federal and local funding to pursue.
Hainsey said the airport has received $750,000 from a federal grant and $500,000 from local governments to entice American Airlines to bring service to the Golden Triangle.
American Airlines is preferred because of their flights to Dallas-Ft. Worth, which would be good for companies such as PACCAR. But Hainsey said American Airlines is slowly emerging from bankruptcy and a merger and isn’t ready to grow.
“When they’re ready to talk, we’re ready to talk,” Hainsey said. “We’re in a good position right now, but they’re not.”