Opinion: Five Golden Triangle storylines to watch in 2019


SDN Executive Editor Ryan Phillips

By: 
Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

While it may not have the skyline of Atlanta or a million people like Birmingham, the Golden Triangle metro area will see no shortage of impactful storylines in the new year — all made possible by the interesting mix of people, business and culture driving industry, policy and growth. 

Last year saw stories of heroics in the face of danger, divisive political issues that saw communities split and reunited, along with other anecdotes that highlight the good, bad and ugly of everything we have here to offer. 

I admit that I have never been a successful prognosticator, and I’m certain other new storylines will emerge in the year to come, but here are five of the stories that you can bet will dominate the headlines in 2019. 

REGIONAL RACES

It’s an election year in deeply-conservative Mississippi, and while the races in the executive branch (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, etc.) will likely see the most TV airtime, big changes could come into play with some of the state district races in 2019. 

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a rare Democratic firebrand in a red state, has already confirmed his intention to run for re-election to the state commission, despite being mentioned as a possible candidate for several state offices. 

Presley, who has raised his profile as an engaged populist, has been instrumental in the fight to increase broadband access to rural areas in Mississippi, in addition to being on the front lines of fighting telemarketing and other kinds of corporate fraud that impacts the state’s utility services. While he may run and will likely win a fifth term, do not count on Presley’s rise to stop at the PSC. It’s difficult in a state like Mississippi for a Democrat to connect with people across the political spectrum, but that folksy touch can be credited at least in part for Presley’s political success.

Highway and infrastructure projects generated countless headlines in the Golden Triangle in the last few years, with the public providing mixed reviews about MDOT projects. 

The Transportation Commission will also be up for re-election, including Republican Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert, a Starkville native first elected in 2011 after serving as administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority. 

In my dealings with Tagert, he has always been accessible and willing to both field questions and criticism, which could be what helped him become the first Republican to ever hold the office for the North District, which covers roughly one million people in the state’s northern 33 counties. 

But if you ask many in Starkville, the feeling toward MDOT isn’t exactly warm, as scores of people continue to criticize the handling of the Highway 12 safety improvement project, which temporarily impacted traffic on the Golden Triangle’s busiest stretch of highway, while permanently changing the dynamic of the corridor. Be it for good or bad, it definitely spurred discussions among those who regularly travel the road. 

Apart from not being able to turn left into Taco Bell, I haven’t really felt the changes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a talking point on the campaign trail and an issue on the minds of voters when they take to the polls. 

AN ATTRACTIVE TREND?

Since the economic downturn roughly a decade ago, the region’s economy has bounced back in  dramatic fashion and new industry continues to show interest in the Golden Triangle as a place to set up shop. 

West Alabama poultry producer Peco’s new facility in West Point, which is expected to add roughly 300 jobs to the region’s economy once it opens in the coming months, is the latest in this trend, leading to a positive and sustained year-over-year impact on the region’s unemployment. 

Clay County, with its infrastructure primed for industry given the availability of water, rail and power, has stayed on the right track since the closing of Bryan Foods/Sara Lee, and those lessons learned along the way will no doubt prove valuable in attracting more blue collar jobs with good pay to the area. 

What could generate headlines, though, will be how any new growth or industrial prospects will be met by public officials and those who voted them into office. Few lasting concerns, if any, were raised in Clay County following the news of Peco beginning operations and the collective effort by both the city of West Point and Clay County should be commended as setting an example for how municipal and county governments should work in tandem to boost the area’s collective economic profile. 

COMMUNIVERSTIY

Money, deadlines — and most importantly politics — will likely determine the success of the Communiversity, which could represent the crown jewel for local economic development officials and an attractive tool for recruiting new business to the Golden Triangle. Expected to open in late 2019, the $42 million, 145,000-square-foot Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence (CMTE) 2.0 facility is currently under construction along Highway 82 just west of the PACCAR plant. 
The facility will house East Mississippi Community College’s manufacturing technology programs and serve as a hub for local industry, including providing incubator space. But with recent leadership changes at EMCC, there does seem to be some degree of uncertainty as to what the future holds. 

Scott Alsobrooks comes from Pearl River Community College and will assume the role of president at EMCC, following the resignation of Thomas Huebner in May 2018. 

It remains to be seen how Alsobrooks will bridge any gaps between EMCC and local elected officials, in addition to those at the Golden Triangle Development LINK, who may have the most at stake in this entire deal, given its role in driving and shaping the regional economy. 

The LINK has proven successful time and again, and while I can’t vouch for its day-to-day handling of the Communiversity, the past success of the LINK should provide a useful advantage to Alsobrooks as he takes the helm. 

NEW PARKS 

Oktibbeha County could see two different kinds of parks take shape in 2019, but it will take community support for the plans to finally come to fruition. 

The new industrial park, which will be located on land owned by the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Association (OCEDA), runs east back to the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 389 intersection.

During its lifetime, the project has been a controversial one, with some in the community criticizing public funds used on the project, while remaining skeptical of the potential to fill the park with viable businesses. 

The LINK and local elected officials, though, remain undeterred and continue to tout the potential of the industrial park. 

Work is slated to begin after the LINK secured a contract with Burns Construction for the project’s water, sewage and road construction, which began Aug. 15.

While the wheels might be moving on the project, a lawsuit concerning the zoning of the land remains to be settled, after a circuit judge ruled in 2017 to uphold the city’s decision to rezone the property for the new industrial park. 

The state Court of Appeals is expected to hear the case sometime in the coming year. 

Like the Communiversity, if the LINK and local officials can work together in an efficient and transparent fashion, promoting the successes while acknowledging the challenges, then shoring up public support should be no problem as the industrial park becomes a reality.  

Starkville is in dire need of well-paying, blue collar jobs to give people an excuse to put down roots and help the community grow. With few offerings in Oktibbeha County for jobs apart from the hospital or university, a successful industrial park could mean a local economy and population primed for growth and prosperity. 

Another different kind of park is also being discussed in Starkville, as city leaders hope to gain enough support to finance a new youth sports complex geared toward attracting major tournaments to the area. 

Last November, city officials saw design plans for the proposed Cornerstone Park — a 175-acre park that would include a sports complex designated for youth baseball and softball and a public park area. The proposed park would be located on property in west Starkville, south of Highway 12, west of the Highway 25 bypass and east of Bluefield Road.

While the concept seems like a home run, the big drawback comes with the $18.5 million price tag, which has some taxpayers wary of the decision, despite the claims that the park would generate anywhere between $116,000 - $179,000 during a single tournament weekend. 

To finance the project, the Starkville Board of Aldermen moved forward on a potential one percent food and beverage and hotel tax levy, which would go toward parks funds. For the levy to pass, the  Legislature will first have to approve it. If approved by state policymakers, Starkville would then hold a public referendum to vote on the levy, requiring a 60 percent majority vote to pass.

If the Starkville electorate has the stomach to pay a little bit more for certain things, it could be big business with thousands more attracted to the Golden Triangle. 

LEGISLATIVE SESSION 

The regular legislative session will begin in less than a week for state policymakers, with the biggest issues yet to be determined. But speculation persists. 

Education, and most importantly funding, has been a consistent talking point for Golden Triangle policymakers, and given the fact 2019 is an election year, the Republican super majority in the Legislature could possibly push through pay raises for the state’s public school teachers. Teacher pay raises and other issues primarily dominate the current state of budget talks for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant supported a teacher pay raise totaling $25 million in November, but it remains to be seen if lawmakers will also lend their support. 

Shoring up funding for the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) will also be a crucial part of budget discussions. Gov. Bryant, in the same proposal where he promoted the teacher pay raise, also endorsed allocating $75 million to PERS to help the financial position of the retirement system. 

Another talking point related to education could be a fresh attempt to rewrite the state’s education funding formula, which has been a high priority for Republican leadership over the past two legislative sessions. Both attempts to pass the rewrite failed and Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn told reporters in December that the issue was not likely to come up during the regular session. 

As for issues not directly related to education, some reports indicate Republican legislators could be willing to support a tax hike on cigarettes.

The measure is pushed by state Sen. Brice Wiggins, who is in favor of increasing the cigarette tax by $1.50 — up from the current 68 cents charged per individual pack of cigarettes, which is among the lowest taxes of its kind among U.S. states. 

Medicaid expansion could also be back on the table, but publicly, the issue has taken a back seat leading up to the start of the session as the state’s budget woes must be addressed once again.  

At the local level, some policymakers could renew the fight to secure funds earmarked for non-coastal counties following the BP oil spill settlement. 

Clay County was one of the few in Mississippi that did not receive anything from the first round of funds dished out from the settlement. But policymakers representing Clay County have all expressed their desire to fight to funds, which could be put toward much-needed infrastructure and bridge repair.

Changing the state flag is also another hot-button issue that could surface during the session, but given the divisive nature of the issue, I doubt it will see any decision made during an election year. 

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News, Daily Times Leader and Town & Gown magazine. The views expressed in this opinion column are his, and do not necessarily represent the views an opinions of any of the aforementioned products or their staffs. 
 

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