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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 Point‚Äôs Ritz Theater and Conference Center.
The agreement keeps the Growth Alliance as West Point‚Äôs and Clay County‚Äôs chamber of commerce, while the LINK assumes responsibility for the city and county‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúEverybody understands what we‚Äôre trying to accomplish,‚ÄĚ Higgins said. ‚ÄúEverybody‚Äôs obviously looking out for their interests, but nobody‚Äôs being problematic just to be problematic. It‚Äôs two groups sitting down and wanting to do something.‚ÄĚ
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 affiliation‚Äôs details. He said West Point and Clay County leaders inside and outside the Growth Alliance are positive about the affiliation because of LINK‚Äôs strong track record.
‚ÄúI really have not heard any negative comments,‚ÄĚ Robinson said. ‚ÄúThese days in economic development, if you don‚Äôt have regional cooperation, then I think you‚Äôre going in with two strikes against you when you‚Äôre going into the game. Projects look for regional cooperation. Now that we‚Äôre expanding this, I really think we‚Äôre 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 don‚Äôt doubt that it will turn out for the good.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúWhen you put those two together, I think it‚Äôs a recipe for success,‚ÄĚ Ross said. ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs potentially the biggest single thing that‚Äôs 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 I‚Äôve been involved with since I‚Äôve been in office.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúShe actually ran the economic development program and the chamber of commerce at Eupora, so she‚Äôs a well-known, well-respected practitioner,‚ÄĚ Higgins said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs probably no job we could ask her to do or want her to do that she couldn‚Äôt do and represent the community tremendously.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs got tremendous experience and great contacts,‚ÄĚ Ross said. ‚ÄúWe didn‚Äôt hire Joe Higgins to run a parade. We want him to be parading the jobs in here.‚ÄĚ
Wilson said she is glad to have LINK and the Growth Alliance‚Äôs support and to share in their desire to improve the community. She said she hopes her work in community improvement ultimately complements LINK‚Äôs economic development efforts.
‚ÄúA 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,‚ÄĚ Wilson said. ‚ÄúWe 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 ‚ÄĒ just doing things to really try to improve our community, improve foot traffic in the community, tourism (and) things of that sort.‚ÄĚ
Meanwhile, Higgins said he and the LINK have big plans to market West Point and Clay County‚Äôs industrial sites at a national level. The abandoned Americold Logistics building near Mossy Oak is one example of West Point‚Äôs vast potential, he said.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a 200,000-square-foot freezer,‚ÄĚ Higgins said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a massive facility sitting vacant. We need to find somebody to call that home. We‚Äôve got a couple of what I call ‚Äėmegasites‚Äô or ‚Äėsupersites‚Äô north of town. We‚Äôre 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.‚ÄĚ
Sara Lee‚Äôs 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 Authority‚Äôs service area. He said the Growth Alliance has placed a lot of faith in the LINK.
‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt take that lightly,‚ÄĚ Higgins said. ‚ÄúWe simply must succeed for them, period.‚ÄĚ