‘Paradox’ of Columbus: Megasites Mean Mega-Success
By Laura Hendrix Corbin
Many adages deal with change – out with the old, in with the new; what once was old is new again; reinventing one’s self. Rarely can all be applied to the same thing, but such a rarity can be found in Columbus, Miss., a rural community that proudly refers to itself as a “paradox.”
The Columbus-Lowndes Development Link’s Web site says just that: “Columbus is a bit of a paradox. It is a charming town with magnificent old homes intermingled with modern homes and businesses.
“A Main Street revitalization program has brought new life to downtown Columbus. Old buildings are being converted into shops and offices, and in some cases, downtown living is a trend.”
Welcome to the “new-old” Columbus – where the birthplace of Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams serves as the city’s Welcome Center, surrounded by other Victorian structures throughout the downtown area.
Don’t let the quaint description fool you, though. Columbus is anything but soft-spoken when it comes to building business and economic advantage for its citizens. It is highly regarded as one of the most aggressive communities when it comes to recruiting and supporting business and industry.
The Link reinvented Columbus and the surrounding area. The organization, formed three years ago from a merger of the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Association, is a highly recognized regional economic and community development powerhouse that delivers results – nearly $1 billion annually.
“We use an incremental approach to achieve exponential results,” the group’s Economic Division motto reads.
“Columbus formed the Link and has been on fire ever since,” says Gray Swoope, president of the Mississippi Development Authority. “The community realized it had to do something different. It had a lot of ‘older’ industry that had gone away or was at the end of its life cycle. The outlook was not so good.”
One of the community’s first victories was attracting American Eurocopter, a subsidiary of EADS Airbus, to the Golden Triangle Airport area. “From there, Columbus was wide open,” Swoope says.
Swoope had a bird’s-eye view of Columbus’ transformation, working closely with the Link’s CEO Joe Max Higgins to attract steelmaker SeverCorr LLC to the area. The two men, with an elevator-ride handshake, determined to do whatever it took to make that deal happen.
SeverCorr had come knocking in 2005, two months after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had designated 1,440 acres in Columbus as a “certified megasite,” part of an industrial area for the burgeoning Southern Automotive Corridor. The zone encompasses 80,000 square miles in Tennessee and portions of six other states, including Mississippi.
The certification meant that Columbus had laid all the groundwork regarding site soil analysis, environmental conditions, transportation and infrastructure development, and access to reliable power sources.
It was a signal to SeverCorr that Columbus was serious, and it worked – bringing a $1.5 billion “mini-mill” opening in 2007, employing 450 workers, producing hot-rolled, cold-rolled and coated steel used for automotive body panels and other industrial applications. It is the first steel mill built in the United States in more than a decade.
The steel company is expected to establish a new business cluster for Columbus, adding to existing clusters of defense, chemical and wood/paper. “This has had a huge impact on the economy and spinoffs are starting to show up,” Swoope says. SeverCorr meant “life was breathed back into the community.”
The community put together a second megasite in 2006, attracting PACCAR, a multinational technology company that manufactures premium commercial vehicles sold around the world under the Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF nameplates. The firm has invested at least $400 million in its location in the new Crossroads site.
“Having another certified, ready-for-development megasite gives the community a tremendous economic development advantage in recruiting new automotive manufacturing or related industries,” TVA Senior Vice President of Economic Development John Bradley says.
“Undoubtedly, the TVA Megasite program and our two megasites – Lowndes County and Crossroads – have been responsible for most of our growth,” Link’s Higgins says.
He attributes the community’s success over the past four-plus years directly to the creation of the Link. “We have a lot of physical resources in our community, and the City, the County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Lowndes County Industrial Development Authority make sure we have the financial resources we need to be successful.”
Higgins describes the Link as the “coach” of the team, which also includes the local utilities companies, banks and Chamber of Commerce members. “Add these together, and you have a strong group that speaks for the whole county,” he says. “The Mississippi Development Authority and the TVA are the Link’s main partners. We could not have done it without them.”
Columbus is now beginning to reach a critical mass, Swoope says. “They have attracted Aurora Flight Systems and Stark Aerospace, a subsidiary of Israeli Aerospace Industries. With the Israeli company, SeverCorr, whose parent company is Russian, and American Eurocopter, with a European parent company, the area now is attracting international attention.”
Swoope has nothing but praise for Columbus and what the Link has done. “Columbus has a whole new energy. It’s an outstanding example of what can happen when a community decides it wants to do something, puts its mind to it, and makes it happen.”