By STEVEN NALLEY
The Columbus Lowndes Development LINK board voted Friday to formally affiliate with the West Point Clay County Community Growth Alliance.
The agreement will last for a minimum of three years, and while the Growth Alliance will remain the chamber of commerce for West Point and Clay County, LINK will assume responsibility for the city and county’s economic development, according to a press release from the two organizations.
Joe Max Higgins, LINK executive director, said the two organizations have discussed an alliance since Jeff Rowell resigned as the Growth Alliance’s president in September. He said LINK plans to hire a staffer charged with directing West Point and Clay County’s economic development, including existing business programs, industry visits and bringing new industries to the city and county.
“He’s going to be doing the job that Jeff was doing, but it’s going to be under our supervision and our programs,” Higgins said. “We will not replace the Main Street activities nor the chamber activities that the Growth Alliance is responsible for. We will report periodically to the Growth Alliance on economic development.”
Between September and January, Higgins said, the Growth Alliance met weekly with representatives from TVA, the Mississippi Development Authority, LINK, North Mississippi Industrial Development Authority and other organizations, each of which presented proposals to move the Growth Alliance board. Jackie Edwards, president of the Growth Alliance board, said LINK represents the type of success the Growth Alliance wants to see.
“We decided that with their proven track record and the similarities between our two communities,” Edwards said, “we should make a proposal to join forces instead of searching for a new executive director.”
Higgins said LINK submitted its initial proposal Nov. 29, and the Growth Alliance resolved to support it before Christmas. Since then, he said, the ball has been in LINK’s court, and Friday’s vote was the last one needed to make the alliance official, if not necessarily the last needed for it to take effect. He said LINK still needs to advertise for its new position and build an electronic database for economic development in West Point and Clay County.
“What we approved today was a proposal in general,” Higgins said. “There will be definitive agreements that will have to be approved as a result. We always felt we would have this complete and operational by July 1.”
West Point and Clay County will fund 25 percent of the alliance. Higgins said these annual Growth Alliance funds will help LINK offset the operating cost, but LINK does not intend to make money from the alliance.
“It’s more intended to get our costs covered,” Higgins said. “If we can have success in West Point and Clay County like in Lowndes County, the overall economy will be stronger.”
Higgins said one key strength LINK intends to help the Growth Alliance take advantage of is its infrastructure. For instance, he said, Sara Lee’s departure from West Point left the city with 2 million gallons of extra sewage capacity readily available for a new business. Also, Clay County houses a 500-megawatt substation which powers cities within and beyond the Golden Triangle, he said, which allows prospective industries to save millions of dollars on electricity versus other development areas.
“Clay County has some of the best infrastructure in the entire Tennessee Valley,” Higgins said. “The types of companies that will be interested in Clay County will be energy and capital intensive — offering the kinds of jobs that are highly technical and well paying.”
Several leaders in the Clay County, West Point, Lowndes County and Columbus communities praised the alliance in a press release, including Luke Lummus, chairman of the Clay County Board of Supervisors.
“We’re glad to be a part of this new venture,” Lummus said. “A lot of people have worked hard to make it happen. I feel like, working together, the sky is the limit.”
West Point Mayor Scott Ross said he commended the city’s board of selectmen, especially Growth Alliance executive committee members Jasper Pittman and Charles Collins, for helping the affiliation happen.
“To use a sports metaphor, with Joe Max Higgins, we have the Super Bowl MVP quarterbacking our team now,” Ross said. “His leadership, paired with our resources such as ample power, water and wastewater capacity, has us poised for great success.”