By STEVEN NALLEY
The West Point-Clay County Community Growth Alliance and the Columbus-Lowndes Development LINK held a formal signing ceremony for a three-year affiliation Tuesday at West Pointâs Ritz Theater and Conference Center.
The agreement keeps the Growth Alliance as West Pointâs and Clay Countyâs chamber of commerce, while the LINK assumes responsibility for the city and countyâs economic development. LINK Executive Director Joe Max Higgins said the deal has been in the works since late October 2011 and negotiations have gone well.
âEverybody understands what weâre trying to accomplish,â Higgins said. âEverybodyâs obviously looking out for their interests, but nobodyâs being problematic just to be problematic. Itâs two groups sitting down and wanting to do something.â
Robbie Robinson, retired Clay County chancery clerk and board member for both LINK and the Growth Alliance, said the signing ceremony culminated significant background work on the affiliationâs details. He said West Point and Clay County leaders inside and outside the Growth Alliance are positive about the affiliation because of LINKâs strong track record.
âI really have not heard any negative comments,â Robinson said. âThese days in economic development, if you donât have regional cooperation, then I think youâre going in with two strikes against you when youâre going into the game. Projects look for regional cooperation. Now that weâre expanding this, I really think weâre going to be leading the state in this effort. I think there are going to be some people watching us to see how this turns out, and in my mind, I donât doubt that it will turn out for the good.â
West Point Mayor Scott Ross said the partnership pairs two key resources: the economic development acumen of Higgins and LINK, and the sites, natural resources and utility infrastructure of West Point and Clay County.
âWhen you put those two together, I think itâs a recipe for success,â Ross said. âI think itâs potentially the biggest single thing thatâs happened to us in decades. I am so confident that this is going to be successful that I consider this to be the most important single thing that Iâve been involved with since Iâve been in office.â
In the time since the two organizations announced their affiliation in January, Higgins said they have hired a new community development director for the Growth Alliance, Cynthia Wilson.
âShe actually ran the economic development program and the chamber of commerce at Eupora, so sheâs a well-known, well-respected practitioner,â Higgins said. âThereâs probably no job we could ask her to do or want her to do that she couldnât do and represent the community tremendously.â
Ross said Wilson will help the Growth Alliance continue to develop its community through such avenues as the Prairie Arts Festival, the Christmas parade, museums, beautification and tourism.
âSheâs got tremendous experience and great contacts,â Ross said. âWe didnât hire Joe Higgins to run a parade. We want him to be parading the jobs in here.â
Wilson said she is glad to have LINK and the Growth Allianceâs support and to share in their desire to improve the community. She said she hopes her work in community improvement ultimately complements LINKâs economic development efforts.
âA big part of what is taken into consideration in industrial recruitment is the location, the town, the quality of life and all of those things,â Wilson said. âWe want to be able to put the best face possible on West Point whenever a prospect comes. I will be handling things like the Main Street program, developing the downtown, doing some retail development out on Highway 45 â just doing things to really try to improve our community, improve foot traffic in the community, tourism (and) things of that sort.â
Meanwhile, Higgins said he and the LINK have big plans to market West Point and Clay Countyâs industrial sites at a national level. The abandoned Americold Logistics building near Mossy Oak is one example of West Pointâs vast potential, he said.
âItâs a 200,000-square-foot freezer,â Higgins said. âItâs a massive facility sitting vacant. We need to find somebody to call that home. Weâve got a couple of what I call âmegasitesâ or âsupersitesâ north of town. Weâre in the process of working with some of our sister agencies to get those ready to market and develop. Some of them are going to rival some of the best sites in the South.â
Sara Leeâs closure has also left West Point with abundant sewage capacity and water resources, Higgins said, and a large substation provides some of the highest electrical capacity in all of the Tennessee Valley Authorityâs service area. He said the Growth Alliance has placed a lot of faith in the LINK.
âWe donât take that lightly,â Higgins said. âWe simply must succeed for them, period.â