Joe Max Higgins Jr. spoke Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Stark Development Board.
JACKSON TWP. When Joe Max Higgins Jr. showed up, Mississippi's "Golden Triangle" region was losing population and getting older, poorer and "dumber" — but the area's leaders refused to acknowledge the problem.
"I said, 'You're losers,'" Higgins recounted. 'And we've got to change that.'"
The tri-county region in the poorest state in the country has seen an influx of almost $6 billion in new business and almost 6,000 new jobs in the last 14 years, thanks to Higgins' aggressive pursuit of advanced manufacturing companies.
Higgins on Thursday spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Stark Economic Development Board at Kent State University at Stark before holding a question-and-answer session with people who work in economic development in the county. He spoke frankly — often with colorful language — about some of the keys to successful economic development: creating shovel-ready sites, preparing a workforce, offering incentives, and beating the competition.
"It's blocking and tackling," he told The Canton Repository. "And most towns don't see that. They think it's whiskey and cigars in the back room."
In the Golden Triangle
Mississippi's Golden Triangle connects three small cities that have a combined population of about 61,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The triangle touches three counties and offers access to three interstates via local highways; has an airport with flights to Atlanta; and has railroads that connect to the coasts, Canada and Mexico.
Higgins moved to Mississippi in 2003 to become CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK, a nonprofit organization that promotes economic development. The organization is funded by an 80-member private investment group comprising businesses from three counties. In 2016, it received $2.4 million in grants and donations, according to its publicly filed tax-exemption form.
One of Higgins' early wins for the region was getting a site certified as a Tennessee Valley Authority "megasite," or a place that's shovel-ready for industrial development. By the time he'd been on the job about two years, a steel mill had announced plans to break ground on the site, and community perception started to change.
"That made 'em start walking upright," Higgins said.
His goal is to create jobs that pay more than the area's average wage — the towns he works in aren't ones where a federal prison or a chicken processing plant needs to land. The Golden Triangle has factories that produce helicopters, tires and engines.
Higgins realized having land to offer that was ready with utilities was a key component in being able to attract new business. But his "Achilles heel" was finding skilled labor.
So a $44 million "communiversity" training center with training for both companies and specific skill is under construction. The facility also will have a showroom for grade-school children to come look at what's being produced in their region and learn about available jobs. The federal government, the state and the surrounding counties all pitched in to build it.
Other workforce development efforts are less expensive. When a Sara Lee Corporation plant in the triangle closed, Higgins called the person at the local community college who oversees workforce and community services.
Representatives from the college went to the plant for a visit and Higgins was emailed information about each person who was going to be out of a job. The skills of the employees losing their jobs were assessed and they were enrolled in classes to get the training they needed to apply for other manufacturing employment in the area.
For Stark County
Higgins' talk Thursday was prefaced by a presentation about the recently released "Strengthening Stark" report, which shows Stark County will become less populated, older and poorer unless something changes. It recommends the community invest more resources in economic development, create jobs in growing sectors and prepare residents for those jobs. The rebranded Stark Economic Development Board is working with a consultant to complete a follow-up economic development plan with more specific recommendations.
Unlike in Mississippi's Golden Triangle, where there's more land available for new industry, much of the economic development work in Stark County is expected to focus on retaining and expanding existing companies.
Higgins said his eight-person staff includes someone who meets three times a year with the area's established businesses to figure out what they need and what problems they're having. The follow-through matters: Within 48 hours of staff visiting, Higgins lets that business know what solution is coming.
Economic development is simple, he said. It's listening to what companies need and putting a deal together. But communities fail because they don't understand that.
In speaking specifically about Stark County, Higgins commented on the newness of the Stark Economic Development Board leadership and of the initiatives laid out in the "Strengthening Stark" report. He suggested five-year increments for measuring progress.
"The people that I've met with, judgment: They've got the skillsets," he said. "They've got the passion. ... The community just needs to figure out how you're gonna do what you're gonna do and then do it. And it's not gonna happen overnight."
Reach Alison at 330-580-8312 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @amatasREP