By CARL SMITH
The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors and Starkville Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a three-year contract Wednesday to enter a cooperative regional development entity consisting of Clay and Lowndes counties.
County representatives passed the interim agreement, which was amended last week, with full board support, while the six aldermen in attendance also unanimously supported the contract. Only Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins was absent from the meeting.
Under the agreement, Oktibbeha County economic development efforts will be placed with the Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK, led by CEO Joe Max Higgins. The LINK itself will be rebranded as the Golden Triangle Development LINK, reflecting its new agreement with Oktibbeha County and existing partnerships with Lowndes and Clay counties.
On Monday, representatives from the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority and the Greater Starkville Development Partnership’s executive board unanimously approved funding streams from within both agencies’ budgets for the new partnership. Wednesday’s contract approval cements financial support from the city and county governing boards.
As for funding, both boards are able to contribute money from contingency streams without raising taxes.
The city itself will contribute $50,000 per year to the link — $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 — while OCEDA and the GSDP will contribute a combined $200,000 from their own set budgets. The county itself will contribute $100,000 per year.
County Administrator Don Posey said money will come from the county’s general fund, a stream similar to the city’s contingency fund.
Before the contact’s approval, members of each board noted the historic nature of combined economic development cooperation between the tri-county region.
During the county’s discussion on the matter, District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams said he preferred to see tangible benchmarks to measure the agreement’s ability to attract business and industry.
“It seems we should establish a rubric — a set of benchmarks — to identify that, yes, progress has been made instead of saying it looks like progress has been made,” he said. “If we don’t have bench marks established ahead of time, we won’t know if true progress has been made.”
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard and other city aldermen sitting in on the county’s meeting acknowledged that no one can guarantee a certain number of new industry ventures or total created jobs, but Howard said the regional deal gives Oktibbeha County a better shot at attracting new business than it has right now. Howard, along with Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman and OCEDA President Jack Wallace, served on a steering committee representing Oktibbeha County as area representatives planned the regional development consortium.
“At the end of the day — and I respect Joe Max Higgins for shooting straight— but his comment was there’s absolutely no guarantee (for total development success). In three years, I think we’ll be able to tell if there has been progress or if there hasn’t,” Howard said. “Saying we have to hit a mark in three years, I don’t think it would be fair to say we have to have guarantees. We want to see the whole Golden Triangle succeed.”
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas both said routine meetings between county representatives and Higgins’ office will provide checks and balances to the entire process.
“After three years, the burden of proof falls on the LINK … (with) sales tax figures and project lists,” Corey said.
While the LINK will take over marketing the county for prospective businesses, Dumas said its incumbent for all associated parties to identify industries which fit well with the community and to not forget the task of community development.
“We’re contracting with an organization that will … increase our exposure nationally. We have to make sure there is something here they can market. With the low-hanging fruit we have to market here, we have to .. rely on the (Starkville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau) and the Partnership. We have to embrace them. Frankly, we can’t forget this because our exposure will be so much greater than it was.”
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery raised concerns about if the county had any options to get out of the contract if Higgins was no longer leading the LINK, but Wiseman said a contract stipulation covered any such scenario.
On Tuesday, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said she was more supportive of the interim agreement after its length was pushed to three years. Previously, Sistrunk voted at a city meeting to table the contract.
“I want us to take full advantage of this extra year … and look at where we’re currently spending for economic development. We spend annually $500,000 (on economic development), and we have to look at how this arrangement fits with those existing entities and how those move forward,” she said Wednesday. “We also have to be very cognizant — this is more to the board of supervisors — (that the) governing bodies that will be appointed … have a real responsibility (to represent the county). Those appointments will be crucial to making sure this is all successful going forward. As long as we go into this with eyes wide open knowing there are no guarantees, knowing we have a commitment to economic development as it relates to the (new deal), then this is something that has great potential. I hope the potential is realized.”
Following both boards’ approval, Wiseman said he was proud of how all city and county entities came together to work on a venture he believes will bring profound results to the area.
“I’m very proud to be a citizen of Starkville and Oktibbeha County. I do believe that playing together as a team, both countywide and through the region, our brightest days are to come,” he said. “I am very confident the hard work (from producing a regional economic development agreement) will pay off.”