By STEVEN NALLEY
The West Point-Clay County Community Growth Alliance and the Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK held a formal signing ceremony for a three-year affiliation Tuesday at West Point’s Ritz Theater and Conference Center.
The agreement keeps the Growth Alliance as West Point’s and Clay County’s chamber of commerce, while the LINK assumes responsibility for the city and county’s economic development. LINK Executive Director Joe Max Higgins said the deal has been in the works since late October 2011 and negotiations have gone well.
“Everybody understands what we’re trying to accomplish,” Higgins said. “Everybody’s obviously looking out for their interests, but nobody’s being problematic just to be problematic. It’s two groups sitting down and wanting to do something.”
Robbie Robinson, retired Clay County chancery clerk and board member for both LINK and the Growth Alliance, said the signing ceremony culminated significant background work on the affiliation’s details. He said West Point and Clay County leaders inside and outside the Growth Alliance are positive about the affiliation because of LINK’s strong track record.
“I really have not heard any negative comments,” Robinson said. “These days in economic development, if you don’t have regional cooperation, then I think you’re going in with two strikes against you when you’re going into the game. Projects look for regional cooperation. Now that we’re expanding this, I really think we’re going to be leading the state in this effort. I think there are going to be some people watching us to see how this turns out, and in my mind, I don’t doubt that it will turn out for the good.”
West Point Mayor Scott Ross said the partnership pairs two key resources: the economic development acumen of Higgins and LINK, and the sites, natural resources and utility infrastructure of West Point and Clay County.
“When you put those two together, I think it’s a recipe for success,” Ross said. “I think it’s potentially the biggest single thing that’s happened to us in decades. I am so confident that this is going to be successful that I consider this to be the most important single thing that I’ve been involved with since I’ve been in office.”
In the time since the two organizations announced their affiliation in January, Higgins said they have hired a new community development director for the Growth Alliance, Cynthia Wilson.
“She actually ran the economic development program and the chamber of commerce at Eupora, so she’s a well-known, well-respected practitioner,” Higgins said. “There’s probably no job we could ask her to do or want her to do that she couldn’t do and represent the community tremendously.”
Ross said Wilson will help the Growth Alliance continue to develop its community through such avenues as the Prairie Arts Festival, the Christmas parade, museums, beautification and tourism.
“She’s got tremendous experience and great contacts,” Ross said. “We didn’t hire Joe Higgins to run a parade. We want him to be parading the jobs in here.”
Wilson said she is glad to have LINK and the Growth Alliance’s support and to share in their desire to improve the community. She said she hopes her work in community improvement ultimately complements LINK’s economic development efforts.
“A big part of what is taken into consideration in industrial recruitment is the location, the town, the quality of life and all of those things,” Wilson said. “We want to be able to put the best face possible on West Point whenever a prospect comes. I will be handling things like the Main Street program, developing the downtown, doing some retail development out on Highway 45 — just doing things to really try to improve our community, improve foot traffic in the community, tourism (and) things of that sort.”
Meanwhile, Higgins said he and the LINK have big plans to market West Point and Clay County’s industrial sites at a national level. The abandoned Americold Logistics building near Mossy Oak is one example of West Point’s vast potential, he said.
“It’s a 200,000-square-foot freezer,” Higgins said. “It’s a massive facility sitting vacant. We need to find somebody to call that home. We’ve got a couple of what I call ‘megasites’ or ‘supersites’ north of town. We’re in the process of working with some of our sister agencies to get those ready to market and develop. Some of them are going to rival some of the best sites in the South.”
Sara Lee’s closure has also left West Point with abundant sewage capacity and water resources, Higgins said, and a large substation provides some of the highest electrical capacity in all of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area. He said the Growth Alliance has placed a lot of faith in the LINK.
“We don’t take that lightly,” Higgins said. “We simply must succeed for them, period.”