Friday afternoon the seven-member steering committee assigned the task of exploring a tri-county economic development coalition unveiled their findings before a large and generally supportive crowd at the East Mississippi Community College campus in Mayhew.
The hour-long, much-anticipated presentation laid out many of the details of an organization that will include Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Clay counties — everything from the group’s structure to financing to the timeline for its creation.
The group offered a detailed two-year timeline that will result in a nine-person economic development organization headed by Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Max Higgins. Each county will have its own developer and the Chambers of Commerce, Main Street organizations and Convention and Visitors Bureaus of each of the three counties, that are not already, will be on their own.
In October, Starkville and Oktibbeha County will sign a contract with the Link creating the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link. By mid-2014, once the requisite state legislation is passed, the body will become the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority.
It is fitting that “Golden Triangle” occupies a prominent position in the group’s name because, more than anything else, the group’s success will depend on its ability to fashion among the three counties a Golden Triangle that is something more substantial than just a name — “cooperation instead of competition,” as one of the committee members said.
To succeed, the three counties will have to develop a common identity, a common purpose and a common goal. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
This group’s organizers are betting it will. And Clay and Oktibbeha are betting Higgins will work the same magic for them he has for Lowndes.
In fact, Higgins used a gambling analogy to illustrate the idea. Economic development is a gamble by its nature, Higgins says. There are winners and losers.
Clay County earlier this year cast its lot with the Link, agreeing to pay the Lowndes-based organization $1 million over three years to guide its economic development efforts.
Oktibbeha County and Starkville, meanwhile, will have to bring a comparable share of money to the table, which means the county will be getting into the game to the tune of roughly $350,000 each year.
To ensure funding stability for the new group — the projected budget is $2.3 million to $2.5 million — the agreement will call for counties to reserve up to 2 mills for that purpose. Higgins said the Link, with Clay County’s participation, presently spends between $1.7 million and $1.8 million annually on economic development.
The mere mention of taxes, of course, is something that makes folks in this fiscally conservative region break out in hives. But it’s pretty clear that tax money is set aside for far less worthy uses. In a very real sense, the revenue diverted to this enterprise should be viewed as an investment.
There are no guarantees and plenty of questions, of course. Over the next three months, Higgins will be presenting the plan to civic clubs and soliciting public feedback.
Will cities and counties that have often viewed themselves as rivals be able to see themselves as one entity? Will the green-eyed monster emerge when one county gets something while the others sit on the sidelines? Will each county be patient enough to “wait its turn?” Is this truly a case of a rising tide lifting all ships?
None of these answers are self-evident. That’s why it’s a gamble.
But the bigger gamble is to do nothing.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.