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Higgins touts development, growth at Exchange

At the Columbus Exchange Club’s August 25 meeting, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins described the area’s economic outlook.
Higgins began by talking about the infrastructure development and land acquisition near Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
“If you were to go out to the prairie today and look at the west side of the airport, we have almost completed miles and miles and miles of wire and 16-inch pipe being installed,” Higgins said. “You can see right of ways being cleared. While it still sort of looks the same, it’s starting to emerge. Tomorrow the bond lawyers will be here and we’ll be finalizing the schedule where we will purchase, with the county being the lead, we will purchase somewhere between $6.5 million and $13 million worth of land on the west side of the airport in the late part of the year. The environmentals have been done, due diligence has been done, the options have been signed – some are still in the process of being amended – and we will probably have that done in the next couple of weeks. We’ll then start working on developing that west of the airport just like we have east of the airport.
“We didn’t start out saying we want to own or control 7,500 acres, we want to fully infrastructure it and so on,” Higgins said. “This didn’t start out like that. It started out like a flowchart, where if we did this we could do this, and if we had an opportunity we could capitalize on it, and that’s what we’ve done. I think by 2016-2017 we will have under control a 7,500-acre industrial park complete with miles and miles of high-end infrastructure. We’re right now at about $140 million spent in water, sewer, roads, electrical improvements out there with more forthcoming. It makes that park probably the premier park in the southeast. There’s not much to compete with it in the entire southeast.”
The Link is working nearly $3 billion in potential development, Higgins said.
“I think we’re working somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.77 billion in prospects,” he said. “I will tell you that I think we will end this year somewhere around $750 million. It’s entirely possible that we will announce a project in excess of $1 billion for the second time in eight years. A lot is going on. We don’t talk timelines or specific projects anymore, but I think probably before you meet the next time there will be some things announced that will change this community moving forward.
“The things that change the most are the super projects,” he said. “The Severstals and the Paccars. I read the blogs…I read the blogs and get my feelings hurt just like y’all do. I see on the blogs that people say we only go after whales. We do. Here’s our philosophy. People say they’d just as soon have 10 industries employing 10 people as one employing 500. We’ve all heard somebody say that. The people that say that are the people that are incapable of getting the 500 jobs. It sounds good in your loser life to say that. Going for the whales when you’re in the position that we’re in is how you get substantially better quicker. We’ve built a reputation such that those are the deals that come our way.
“You win some and you lose some,” Higgins said. “Right now we bat around .330 or .340. That’s not perfect, but it’ll get you in the hall of fame in most any league you play. I told you we’re looking at as much as a billion this year; we’ve already lost an $850 million project two months ago. We’re swinging every day.”
The recent spate of retail development in Columbus is not necessarily a sign that the economy is turning around, Higgins said.
“Why are we having this retail development when people say we are going for a double dip?” Higgins said. “And, by the way, I think that’s right. But I don’t think the economy is out of the woods. But we were asked at our board meeting why these companies are announcing and coming. These companies were looking at us hard and heavy before the economy tanked. TJ Maxx was already in here looking at us. The projects you’re seeing announced now, some of those have been in planning since before the recession. I will tell you, though, that in the last two or three months the traffic on the retail side is really starting to pick up.
“Last night I was looking at the three Triangle towns plus Tupelo,” Higgins said. “Right now year to date Columbus is looking at about $250,000-plus on sales tax collection over last year. The other two Triangle towns are negligibly up, and Tupelo is up more than us, but given the size of us and the size of them, percentage-wise we’ve got the biggest increase in those numbers. The down side is that we’re still a far stretch from where we were last year, but we’re better than we were last year.”
The Link is looking at deals that cover a wide range of areas, he said.
“The deals we’re looking at right now are aerospace,” he said. “They’re metals, wood and paper, alternative energy and automotive. Those are the things that are looking. It’s a hodge-podge. There’s one thing that underlines all of those. They’re in advanced manufacturing. There is no stitch-and-sew, no clip-and-snip, no widgets. They’re all in the $12-$14 an hour or higher. The majority is between $40,000 and $55,000 average yearly income, excluding benefits.”
Higgins said that the area has the workforce to handle the incoming jobs.
“Let me tell you what’s likely to happen,” Higgins said. “We’re looking at all these big numbers, but when you get a big one the other prospects that are looking at you seriously are going to run. They don’t want to compete. We try our best to give everybody the opportunity to come in and be successful. When we got Severstal, they had about two years to come in and get up and get their legs under them and get up and running, and then we built Paccar. Nobody looked at us seriously when were building Severstal because they didn’t want to come in under those $70,000 jobs. They want to see what happens and how we handle it and then move forward.
“The unemployment numbers are staggering right now,” he said. “The new numbers just came out today. Clay is at 20+ percent. We’re at 12.2%. Starkville has habitually been a 3%, but now they’re at 12%. I don’t think you’re going to see in a long, long time 5% unemployment. In a way it’s a buyer’s market for labor for companies coming in. I don’t think we’re going to create enough jobs to get that number down to 5% again any time soon.”
Despite the name, the new industrial park is not limited to aerospace, he said.
“We started looking at our greatest opportunity for high-tech jobs,” Higgins said. “What we saw was aerospace. Aerospace is hard to get into if you don’t have some already, but what we did was look at Columbus Air Force Base. It’s aerospace. It’s got thousands of civilian employees keeping the busiest airport in the world running. Then we added Eurocopter, Stark and Aurora. What we also understand is that there’s a very good chance is that Eurocopter could be working a thousand employees. Their total site is 78 acres. Stark’s total site is 75 acres, Aurora’s is around 25 acres. They don’t take much land.
“If you look at our site, the area near Artesia Road has rail, and that’s where we’re going to put our rail-intensive industries,” he said. “Up north, near Charleigh Ford Road, that’s for stand-alone. Along the middle is where we’re putting aerospace.
“What you need to understand is that the property we’re buying and infrastructuring will probably take 30 years plus to completely build out,” he said. I had one supervisor say to me that we need to get something big in the next five to 10 years or we’re going to be viewed as a failure. If you’re looking at it like that you need to take another step back because 2,500 acres is a lot of land and a lot of building. We’re making an investment in our future.”

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