Thursday, October 18, 2007

More than Entire States!

Todd Thoman, our resident economic development expert at Agracel, kept telling me about Columbus, MS (population 25,944) from his travels around the country. Todd is on the road almost as much as I am and was the person who taught me the ED field many years ago. As we were expanding, he was the first person who I thought of bringing on when we were of a size to do so. Fortunately, he accepted and is a key part of Team Agracel.

I finally got to Columbus on my way to a Mississippi Power talk in Meridian. Almost 100% of Mississippi Power customers lost power from Hurricane Katrina, but valiantly the company had everyone back online within 12 days. They are a world-class organization.

Joe Max Higgins, CEO of Columbus-Lowndes Development, and Allegra Brigham, CEO of 4-County Electric Power Association, were my tour guides for a very quick two hour tour of Columbus. In fact, as you’ll see in my report, it was too quick and I’m going back next month for another visit.

Joe Max explained a bit of the history of Columbus, “Forty years ago we were bigger than Tupelo, but George McLean and Harry Martin started the Tupelo Miracle and within ten years we were the same size. Today Tupelo is about 40% bigger. We developed a great deal of complacency and had a loser attitude. We were constantly coming in second on many projects.”

I’ve often said I’d much rather come in tenth or twentieth rather than second on an industrial project. You lose either way, but coming in second is especially disheartening.

Joe Max went on, “I was working in economic development in Paragould, AR and a recruiter called me about the job in Columbus. I hung up on him but then started looking at them compared to other locations. I thought that they should be hitting home runs, but it appeared that they didn’t have a team in place and they weren’t working any deals.”

Allegra added, “Joe came in to the interview and knew more about our town than we did. We knew we had to do something different and talked him into leading us. One of the questions he asked us that day was, ‘Do you value the past more than the future?’ I responded that day, ‘We appreciate the past but are looking to the future.’ Joe is definitely one who is looking to the future.”

That was June, 2003. Since then Columbus has landed two mega-projects and numerous other new businesses that have collectively invested over $3 billion into the community. Those companies will hire approximately 3,500 people, virtually all at over $16/hour. Their goal is to continue to grow 1,000+ jobs/year, a very aggressive plan for a town of 25,000.

Three billion in projects is more than some states that we work in have accomplished in the entire state! Tomorrow’s blog relates how they landed those companies.

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