By STEVEN NALLEY
If any company in Starkville demonstrated the ebb and flow of the economy in 2012, SemiSouth Laboratories did.
In March, SemiSouth announced plans to invest $18 million in new equipment and create 100 new jobs in Starkville. Seven months later, SemiSouth closed its doors, displacing approximately 90 workers.
Jennifer Gregory, Greater Starkville Development Partnership chief operating officer, said SemiSouth’s decision was a surprise.
“From all accounts, we heard SemiSouth was enjoying being in the Starkville community, and just prior to their announcement that they would be closing, we were even working with them on putting together recruitment materials,” Gregory said. “They were interested in recruiting a number of advanced engineers.”
2012 was a mixed year for Starkville area businesses; new ones came, old ones left and the job market saw gains and losses alike.
Gregory said any job losses are always a loss for the community, but she believes neither the loss of SemiSouth nor other losses in Starkville are specifically indicative of economic health problems for the community itself.
“I think it’s indicative of very specific circumstances within the organizational structure and financial structure of those companies,” Gregory said. “As we have seen based on sales tax records and food and beverage tax receipts, the economy seems to be thriving and doing quite well.”
SemiSouth’s departure came a little more than a month after the Thad Cochran Research Park it called home opened a new incubator building for II-VI, which specializes in engineered materials and optoelectronic components. At that opening in September, II-VI Executive Vice President Vincent Mattera said SemiSouth was among the reasons the Pennsylvania-based II-VI chose to invest in the Starkville community.
“We evaluated several communities around the country and chose Starkville because of the strong support we received from the various government and economic development agencies, the university that is conducting relevant research in the applications of our products, and the presence of a long-term strategic customer in SemiSouth Laboratories,” Mattera said in September.
Even as it lost SemiSouth, Starkville also gained a new economic partner in Renasant Bank, which began construction of its standalone location during the summer. Construction is expected to finish by the summer, and Tommy Tomlinson, president of Renasant’s Starkville division, said in August that Renasant is relying primarily on local suppliers and contractors for the construction.
“I grew up in Starkville, so it’s important for me to do this,” Tomlinson said in August. “In this economy, there have not been that many jobs of this magnitude in the area. You have people from neighboring states that are bidding on these projects. We wanted, as much as we could, to keep everything done locally.”
Starkville also lost jobs on the banking front, as Cadence Bank announced plans in July to lay off 17 employees at its Starkville operations center as a result of consolidation with the center’s counterpart in Birmingham, Ala. A few days after this announcement, Cadence also announced that Starkville banking center president Marcus Mallory and Columbus banking center president Jim McAlexander resigned from their posts.
In at least one case, the possibility of job losses was raised but ultimately averted. Sitel Corp. announced plans in August to lay off 58 Starkville employees, but by December, those plans had changed. Instead, Andrew Kokes, Sitel vice president for global product management and marketing, said 100-150 more jobs would come to the company’s Starkville offices.
“While one program did come to an end, and an associated notice was made, other business needs with existing clients provided work opportunities and benefited all those employees that were part of the group associated with the announcement,” Kokes said. “All displaced employees in September were offered like positions with other client programs managed by Sitel.”
2012 also saw several smaller new businesses open or announce plans to open in Starkville, including TechGuyz, Sprout and several restaurant chains such as Firehouse Subs, Beef O’ Brady’s and Chick-fil-A.
Concurrently, Gregory said sales tax collections in Starkville have remained steady in 2012, rising dramatically in certain months.
“We will always see dips and peaks in the sales tax month to month just because of our county’s cycle of events and activity, but I think, overall, it seems that the collection of sales taxes is definitely growing,” Gregory said. “We look for that trend to remain steady in 2013. I think the climate in Oktibbeha County is definitely one that is attractive to businesses and restaurants. I think that’s why we’ve seen so many new jobs and restaurants in Starkville over the last year.”