By CARL SMITH
The Starkville Board of Aldermen tabled an agenda item Tuesday which would have promised two years worth of funding to an interim economic development agency.
Aldermen were scheduled to consider approving a $350,000 economic services agreement funding the Golden Triangle LINK, the rebranded name for a consortium between Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, but the issue was postponed after lengthy discussion on the plan’s longterm impact and implications.
In the agreement, the city of Starkville would have given $50,000 — $30,000 from funds diverted from the electric department’s contribution of dues to the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association and $20,000 from the city’s contingency budget — per year for two years. Approximately $100,000 per year would have also come from Oktibbeha County, while a combined $200,000 was scheduled from the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Agency per year.
Last month, area leaders unveiled a two-part cooperation plan which would establish the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority, a new economic development engine charged with creating regional growth in the tri-county area, in October 2014.
Under this plan, economic development in Oktibbeha County during the interim phase would be led by the Golden Triangle LINK.
The board could take the issue up again at its next meeting on Nov. 6 or hold a special-call meeting to address the agenda item, but officials say no plans for a special meeting are currently under consideration.
As presented last month, the GTRDA’s proposed timeline has Starkville and Oktibbeha County joining the new LINK and a search for a county-specific economic developer both occurring this month.
Current Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said the city’s move doesn’t cause too big of a snag with the agency’s timeline because the whole process has multiple moving parts.
Higgins and other economic development representatives were in attendance during Tuesday’s aldermen meeting.
“We have worked too hard and too long to say the sky is falling, but I think probably what we need to do is have the other groups approve the interim deal and execute it,” Higgins said.
Although Higgins sees no major issues with the delay, it could possibly extend the Oktibbeha County economic developer search depending on how long it takes the board to approve its funding package.
Starkville has been without a chief economic developer since former GSDP CEO Jon Maynard resigned in March.
“Delaying this process another three or four weeks means one more month or possibly more that Starkville and Oktibbeha County does not have an economic developer dedicated to recruiting industry for our community,” Jennifer Gregory, GSDP vice president for tourism, said. “Upon execution of this contract, that is the first goal and the next step of this regional coalition. We cannot afford to delay this hire.”
Every day the county does not have a chief economic developer, Wiseman said, opportunities are lost.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve got to get about the work of economic development as a community as quickly as possible,” he said. “Time is a tremendous factor here.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said she voted to table the measure Tuesday because she believed the board needed more time to study the agreement and have individual questions and concerns answered. Sistrunk said the agreement seems to establish redundant governmental boards — developing a new economic development agency while the city still helps fund agencies like the GSDP and OCEDA — and sets up potential financial burdens on citizens with little city representation to the agency’s guiding boards.
In September, developers said legislation could be passed which would allow counties to levy up to 2 mills each to support the GTRDA. Its annual operating budget is estimated at approximately $2.5 million.
“We have … similar entities now that are doing similar functions (as the GTRDA would), and we’re leaving them all in place and creating a new entity and creating legislation that almost ensures it will be there for a long, long time,” Sistrunk said. “I’m also concerned that the city, which will fund about 70 percent (of the governmental portion of funding), doesn’t have a real true voice in the governing board besides the good will we have with the (Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors).”
Sistrunk said she wants the board to have an informed discussion about the entire GTRDA proposal before she commits to a “Yay” or “Nay” vote.
“Yes, I think there is sufficient time to address concerns of the board assuming that someone will shepherd that through, monitor its process and make it a big priority. If I were part of the steering committee … I would sit down one-on-one with each of the aldermen who voted to table (the funding),” she said. “I recognize the need and support the idea for regional economic development, but I just want it done in a way that protects Starkville.”
Higgins said he is open to returning to Starkville and holding discussions with interested aldermen.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he is uncomfortable with the proposal’s potential tax implications without putting that issue before the people.
“I have issues with forced tax increases without at least a vote or referendum,” he said. “Here, you already see people irate about the municipal complex.”
Despite the delay, both Wiseman and Gregory say they believe the regional economic development plan will be implemented and will provide great benefits to the tri-county area.
“The opportunity to form a regional organization is a rare opportunity for all of us, and I believe the timing is just right now for every opportunity of success in Oktibbeha County,” Wiseman said. “Everybody will have the opportunity between now and next December to gauge how this regional partnership works and determine whether it’s a good fit for the community. I have a high degree of confidence that we’re going to see between now and then that it benefits Starkville greatly.
I think by the time we get to December 2013, (the decision to continue with regional economic development) will be a no-brainer.”