Friday, October 19, 2007

Flocking to Columbus

Joe Max Higgins is an example of where the combination of planning, persistence and risk taking combine to equal success. His first opportunity to distinguish and differentiate Columbus from the pack came less than a year after he started as head of the Columbus-Lowndes Development when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) held a workshop in Nashville, TN, inviting hundreds of towns within the TVA area to look at developing new mega-sites for automotive, steel and other large projects.

Joe Max related that at the workshop they got up and said, “Ok, here is what you are going to need if you want to play. You’ve got to have a commercial airport within 50 miles. You’ve got to have one and hopefully two Class I railroads. You’ve got to put together at least 1,500 contiguous acres of land with at least 1,000 that are developable. And, you can’t have an existing automotive assembly plant within 50 miles.”

He went on, “We went check to that; check; check; check. But they only gave us six weeks to put everything together. That included controlling the site, getting engineering plans done and having cost estimates done for infrastructure.”

Allegra Brigham added, “It really separated the men from the boys. No one thought we could pull it off. They thought we would give up midway through. But, Joe task mastered everyone and we pulled it off. When we were done we had a six inch binder to submit with all of the details they were looking for.”

The new mega-site involved getting seven different land owners to agree, something that I can’t imagine being able to do in such a short period of time.

The site became the first TVA certified site in their seven state area in August, 2004 and SeverCorr, a new generation steel producer, walked in the door in October. The $880 million project was announced in January, 2005 and formally broke ground in September, 2005. The ribbon cutting for the plant is later this month. Two other companies (Heidtman Steel and New Process Steel) are also building plants adjacent to SeverCorr to utilize the mill’s production.

Allegra talked about the community’s reaction, “We had a lot of doubters in town. Some of the people started to finally believe when we got the mega-site certified but there were few doubters when SeverCorr landed.”

Joe Max added, “The knife was hot and we cut through the butter with SeverCorr. But one winning season does not a dynasty make. So, we had to do it all over again. We signed options with another seven different land owners for our second mega site in November, 2005. We got that site certified in the spring of 2006 and it became TVA’s fifth mega site. We were the only town that has ever done two. Suddenly, we were a player!”

Columbus quickly became a finalist for National Railcar that ended up in Mussel Shoals, AL; a GE plant that went to Batesville, MS; and a new PACCAR Engine plant that is now being built in Columbus.

Joe Max said of PACCAR, “We were simultaneously working all three of these projects in a six month period of time when PACCAR called and said, ‘We want to come to Columbus but you’ve got to end discussions with the other two projects you are working.’ We rocked the ED world when we took ourselves out of the running for GE and National Railcar.”

He laughed as he told me that he had lost over $1 billion in projects in the past year, even as he was landing the $1.1 billion PACCAR plant with almost 1,000 jobs.

The SeverCorr jobs will pay an average of $75,000/year. PACCAR’s will be $50,000/year jobs. Of the 3,500 jobs that have been created, only 200 could be classified as lower paying ones. Quite an accomplishment for Columbus and its citizens.

Can you believe I’m not done with this story? Monday: Other, smaller companies landed that would be front page news in most towns!


Scott said...

Thanks for the great post on Columbus, MS. After reading your series on the Farm Bill I was wondering how do you feel about the TVA? Is it another unfair subsidy where Washington is picking winners at the expense of the rest of the country or is the TVA area so disadvantaged where that federal assistance is warranted?

BoomtownUSA said...

I am by no means an expert on the TVA. nor on the subsidies that they currently receive. However, I think that if you look at the history of the TVA, you’ll see that they were set up at a time when the entire country was going through massive electrification. However, the very rural areas of the south which at the time were also the poorest parts of the USA, were not viewed very attractively by companies wanting to set up generating and distribution systems. These rural areas were at risk of putting themselves even further behind on the economic prosperity curve, unless something like the TVA was set up.

Today, our company views the TVA as being one of the preeminent economic development organizations in the country. They are taking a much more proactive approach toward economic development at a time when many investor owned utilities are backing off on their ED efforts. I think that the agurbs® that are in the TVA territory will be well served from this effort and the numerous jobs that are created as a result.

Two thumbs up to the TVA, in my opinion.