Higgins Communiversity

Joe Max Higgins spoke at the Communiversity Friday on the status of economic development in the region

The Golden Triangle Development LINK held a presentation Friday morning to update local business owners on the state of economic development in the region.

Joe Max Higgins, the LINK's CEO, led the conversation by telling those in attendance that Mississippi was not the leading destination for businesses it has been billed as.

"We've been told for at least the last four years that Mississippi is winning, right?" Higgins said. "You're not. We're not winning. Not on a national level."

Higgins said the last four years had hit the Golden Triangle hard, pointing to the average amount of capital investment and jobs created dropping 40% since 2015.

This downward trend, as well as mismanagement from the Mississippi Development Authority, has removed Mississippi and the Golden Triangle from development consultant's radars, Higgins said.

Further demonstrating the decline, Higgins said the amount of projects on his desk had dropped from consistently being between 10 and 15 to him currently having only two.

Because of this statewide mismanagement, Higgins said he expected Governor-elect Tate Reeves to appoint a new head of the MDA after being sworn in to his office in January.

"First of all, shoot me in the head if we don't," Higgins said.

Higgins said he had an ideal candidate in mind, though he did not identify the person. He said he was hopeful the rest of the economic development community around the state would endorse and push for the candidate.

However, Higgins also said he was determined to build the Golden Triangle independently and reduce the need to rely on the state for projects.

Higgins said the first step to do this is visiting the three largest companies already invested in the region at their out-of-state corporate headquarters and continuing to build the business relationships necessary for investment to continue.

"We're going to find out if they're happy here, and we're going to say 'What do you need to be more successful here? Let us help you do that,'" Higgins said. "We're going to Washington to see Paccar, to Indiana to see Steel Dynamics and to Memphis to see International Paper Company formerly Warehouse."

In addition to those trips, Higgins said he wanted to visit the LINK's partners at the MDA, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Kansas City Southern Railway Company.

"We're also going to go back and spend quality time with our partners," Higgins said. "We're going to go to Kansas City, and we're going to sit down with KCSR and say, 'Look, you used to bring projects to Mississippi all the time. We haven't seen you in forever.'"

Higgins spoke about a conversation he had with a representative from the TVA when Higgins asked why the agency had written the Golden Triangle off, to which the representative said it was the consultants who had written the region off, not them.

"We want to make sure TVA knows everything we've got to sell," Higgins said.

Once a new administration was in place, Higgins said he also wanted to spend time with the MDA and forge a stronger relationship with the state and the Golden Triangle.

"We want to explain to them that we're your best bet for success," Higgins said. "We know it. We just need you to know it, recognize it and use it."

Other visits Higgins said he and his staff would make will take them to consultants around the country who had apparently disappeared from the area.

"Many of those site consultants who used to be here on a routine basis that we haven't seen in years, we're going to go see them," Higgins said.

Higgins said he would have an "elevator speech" prepared for these meetings highlighting the Golden Triangle's assets, such as the Communiversity, the roughly $42 million workforce development center operated by East Mississippi Community College.

Another selling point for the region, Higgins said, comes from a survey the LINK recently commissioned. The survey analyzed workforce trends and figures around the Golden Triangle.

The results of the survey are available for public viewing on the LINK's website.

One finding from the survey showed 5,732 people commute from outside of the Golden Triangle to work, while 2,253 leave the region for work.

The LINK's Chief Operating Officer Macaulay Whitaker said the outflowing population was important to analyze to understand why they would work some place other than the Golden Triangle.

Whitaker said it was reasonable to assume those people might be seeking lower wage jobs based on market data of surrounding counties but stressed that group of 2,000-plus was an opportunity to pull people back into the area.

The LINK last did this survey in 2007, Whitaker said, and in that year, respondents said they would change jobs for just an extra quarter per hour.

While she acknowledged the surveys did have differences and the results were not "apples to apples," Whitaker said respondents of the new survey said they would not change jobs for less than an additional $5 an hour and better benefits.

"We're in an entirely different market today than we have been in the past," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the change likely suggests people are now highly satisfied with their jobs or they know they are underemployed, meaning they are working a position beneath their qualifications, and are aware of how valuable they are.

Those people, Whitaker said, were who the LINK needed to market to in order to get them into the Communiversity and working in an industry around the Golden Triangle. Whitaker said bringing them in would help not only businesses looking for trained labor but also people trying to climb the wage ladder.

"Whether they're a kindergartener, whether they're a twelfth grader, whether they're a parent of a student or an individual that's employed at part-time job at a retail store, there is a next step," Whitaker said. "And we need to make sure we're keeping people on track to get to that next step."

Of the people who responded to the survey, over 8,000 said they felt they were underemployed while over 7,000 said they were currently working part-time but wanted to be full-time.

Whitaker said the survey largely confirmed what they already believed about the market in the Golden Triangle and underscored how important acknowledging the obstacles facing the region were.

"We've been aware for a while that workforce is an Achilles heel, and we're in a very tight labor market," Whitaker said.

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