By STEVEN NALLEY
February’s 2010 census results showed Columbus’ population falling to 23,640 even as Starkville’s rose to 23,888, but Lowndes County still made strides in business during 2011.
Major stories also arose outside Columbus’ business circles, with the Columbus City Council firing Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John in July. The city officially hired St. John’s interim replacement, Selvain McQueen, in December.
Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said St. John was fired for failing to show up for hearings for another police officer.
“He had consumed alcohol and was unable to go forward with the testimony he was to present that day, which he had admitted to doing,” Armstrong said.
The city received 82 applications for the position, Armstrong said, and Mayor Robert Smith appointed a selection commission of local residents and police chiefs from out of town. Armstrong said he, Smith, and Human Resources Director Patricia Mitchell narrowed the pool down to 25 candidates, leaving the selection commission to select the top five.
“A couple (of candidates) subsequently backed out,” Armstrong said. “One of the three was Selvain McQueen. He was selected by the mayor and city council in a 4-2 vote. He was sworn in at our last meeting.”
Also, the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning selected Jim Borsig as Mississippi University for Women’s new president in November. Joe Max Higgins, CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK, said he was on one of IHL’s search committees and had placed Borsig among his top choices.
“I think he understands the challenges before him and before the school,” Higgins said. “I think he’s the best pick we could have made, and we need to support him so he can deliver.”
Higgins said he considered the announcement of Calisolar coming to Lowndes County one of the area’s biggest stories for the year. In September, legislators approved a $75 million incentive package to bring Calisolar, a solar cell manufacturer, to Columbus. Calisolar brings a private capital investment of at least $600 million and 951 full-time jobs with annual salaries of $45,000 plus benefits.
“By my tally, it will be the second biggest project in the country announced this year,” Higgins said. “It was also funded by Lowndes County in addition to the state.”
Higgins said Calisolar’s board of directors came to Columbus last week with a construction team working on layout and design for the company’s new 800,000-square-foot plant. He said Calisolar tentatively plans to break ground in the spring.
“We’ve always anticipated the groundbreaking would be in late spring or early summer,” Higgins said. “I think late spring’s a pretty good date to pick right now.”
The business year in Columbus and Lowndes County was not without bad news, Higgins said, with Omnova Solutions selling the production elements of its commercial wall covering business in December after housing them in Columbus for 48 years. Other significant business stories in the area are still in progress, he said.
“This month, we finished up our first round of purchases for the aerospace park site,” Higgins said. “We wrote checks somewhere in the amount of $6.5 million in the month of December. Earlier this year, we wrapped up the water line installation for the aerospace park. We installed somewhere along the lines of 12 miles of 16-inch water line that will serve the park. That’s part of a $17.5 million water and sewer project to serve the aerospace park.”
Higgins said LINK intends to purchase another $5.5 million in property in 2012, along with a water tank and sewage pumping stations.
Finally, the Golden Triangle Regional Airport celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011. Higgins said the airport was the first joint venture between Columbus, Starkville and West Point, and its placement in Lowndes County was key to the adjacent industrial park’s development.
“It’s an absolute safe bet that if GTRA wasn’t done 40 years ago, then we wouldn’t have the assets in the industrial park that have exploded over the last several years,” Higgins said. “There would not have been a steel mill; there would not be Eurocopter. It was the linchpin that started all of the development out there.”