Most industrial recruitment projects the Golden Triangle Development LINK works on are known to the public only by a nickname before the deals are finalized and announced.
Sometimes, like with a project currently looking to locate in Lowndes County, the LINK has a little fun with that nickname, CEO Joe Max Higgins told Rotary Club of Columbus on Tuesday.
“We gave this one (the nickname) ‘Lettuce’ because the people we started dealing with in California had to be smoking the Devil’s Lettuce,” Higgins said. “I mean stoned to the bone. Now, we’re dealing with a boy out of Alabama. He kind of talks like we do and thinks like we do.”
Funny name aside, Project Lettuce could have a serious impact on the area’s economy, investing $60 million and bringing 150 jobs, Higgins said. Those jobs will pay in the $75,000 per year range.
“Lettuce is underway,” Higgins said. “We’ve just got a nondisclosure agreement so we can’t tell you who it is yet.”
Overall, Higgins said the LINK is in the late stages of landing almost $900 million worth of projects that could bring roughly 550 new jobs to the Golden Triangle very soon. These have either already been announced or could be announced by the end of this year, he said.
More than half of that investment, though it comes with just a handful of jobs, consists of three Origis solar farms, totaling $550 million. Two of those farms will be in Lowndes County and the third in Clay. All are already under contract to supply power for Tennessee Valley Authority, Higgins said.
“We’ve got enough solar being built in the Golden Triangle right now to equate to a small nuclear power plant,” he said.
Another company is looking at Lowndes County Port property for a $100 million project that would bring 100 jobs paying in the $50,000 to $60,000 per year range, he said. The company has an option on the needed property it can exercise by the end of the year, but Higgins said the LINK should know something official by October.
A two-phase project, codenamed Renegade, also is underway, Higgins said. He estimated that investment at $125 million with 150 jobs in the $55,000 to $65,000 per year range. Project Buckle, which is affiliated with the steel industry, is a planned $40 million investment that could bring 70 jobs, he said.
In Clay County, another steel-related company, codenamed Coco, could invest $10 million and bring in 70 jobs, including “a lot of welding jobs,” starting at $21 per hour.
“That all sounds kind of crazy, except it’s not,” Higgins said. “Because we’ve been around 18 years, and for 14 of those years we averaged $500 million and 500 jobs a year. … We’re back rockin’ and rollin’.”
Making sure the labor force is here to support all these new jobs remains the LINK’s biggest challenge, Higgins said. That’s why the LINK’s strategy is high investment with fewer, higher-paying jobs.
“(Labor force) is our Achilles’ heel and that’s everybody’s Achilles’ heel,” Higgins said. “That’s the question we have to answer the most. That’s why we really don’t go after companies that don’t pay very well. We’ll point blank tell you if you’re paying cut-sew widget squidget wages, you’re probably not going to be able to succeed here.
“We don’t go after the 3,000-job deals, because quite frankly you can’t supply the labor,” he added. “You’re lying to yourself when you say you are. Internally, we say our pressure point is 500 jobs. We think that’s the maximum amount we can do and successfully compete. Once we get one of those, there’s a period of time that you can’t get another one. You can’t get a 500-job in Oktibbeha, 500 in Lowndes and 500 in Clay (in a short timeframe). It just doesn’t work like that.”
The medical marijuana industry is looking at facilities all over the region for growhouses, processors and dispensaries, Higgins said, even with the federally subsidized TVA providing a giant roadblock.
Mississippi voters approved medical marijuana by a near 2-to-1 margin in 2020, but a technicality related to the state’s petition process essentially struck down the vote. Now, the future of a medical marijuana law lies with the Legislature.
Higgins, and the companies he is in contact with, believe it’s only a matter of time before it’s legal. Those companies, he said, are looking at existing buildings in West Point, Columbus, Starkville and even Maben, in hopes of cashing in.
Higgins told Rotarians he and his team showed two facilities in Clay County — Flexible Flyer and Blazon Tube — to a company looking to establish a growhouse. The only problem was that both 4-County Electric Power Association and the West Point electric grid, like all electric providers in the Golden Triangle, get their power from TVA. Since the drug is still federally outlawed, TVA will not supply power to medical marijuana businesses.
“I told (TVA), you do realize there’s going to be 36 counties in Mississippi that aren’t going to have the ability to participate unless they’ve got a Bubba and Jim Bob generator to crank and run that store,” Higgins said.
For now, the LINK has found a potential “work-around” through Atmos for gas-powered primary and backup generators, he said.
New Columbus mayor
In an answer to a Rotarian’s question about Higgins’ view on the new Columbus mayor and city council, Higgins responded with guarded optimism and advised the crowd to do likewise.
Keith Gaskin defeated longtime incumbent Robert Smith in June, and two new council members — Ward 3’s Rusty Greene and Ward 6’s Jacqueline DiCicco — also joined city leadership.
“I think we are premature to canonize or condemn. In other words, we get somebody new in, we never give them a chance, we just beat ‘em in the butt … or we hold them up like the greatest thing since sliced bread and the second coming of Jesus Christ and they can never live up to your expectations,” Higgins said.
It’s unreasonable in just two months, Higgins said, to determine whether the Gaskin administration will be successful. He shared his own experience with coming to Columbus in 2003. Within a few months, some community leaders wanted Higgins gone. By 2004, TVA had certified its first-ever industrial megasite in Lowndes County, one that Severstal (now Steel Dynamics) would call home.
“Let’s give the mayor and council the benefit of the doubt. Don’t canonize them and give them Hometown Hero awards, and don’t sit there and say, ‘They’re no good and they’ll never get it done,” Higgins said. “… When the budget comes out, you’ll get some good indications. Where you spend your money is indicative of what your values are.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.