Members of the local business community gathered in the auditorium of Columbus Middle School Wednesday for the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link(LINK) quarterly meeting. Members in the crowd were told that the LINK had facilitated a federal grant for Columbus Air Force Base(CAFB), assisted Aurora Flight Sciences in a new expansion of their facility, and brokered a development deal for The Gilmer Inn property in downtown Columbus.
CMS principal Cindy Wamble welcomed the crowd to the school alongside Interim Columbus School Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddel. Liddel stressed to the group how important the LINK and all economic development goes hand in hand with improving education for the youth of Columbus. The Columbus Girls Choir entertained the crowd with a heartfelt rendition of “Because of who you are” while visitors dined on lasagna and accoutrements prepared by the staff at Columbus Middle.
United States Congressman Allen Nunnelee took the stage to rave about all of the improvements in the Columbus School system since he had graduated: “I’m a product of the Columbus Schools, and I sure don’t remember us having anything quite as nice as this set-up here, it is something to be proud of.”
Nunnelee went on to commend local officials on their cooperation in luring major businesses to the Industrial Park in Lowndes County. The Congressman praised LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins for bringing billions of business to the Golden Triangle: “Somebody forgot to tell Joe Max that we’re in the middle of a recession!”
Joe Max Higgins took the dais to share some of the progress made by the LINK in recent months. LINK Vice President of Governmental Affairs & Business Development, Mary Cates Permenter, helped acquire a $250,000 federal grant from the Department of Defense for CAFB. Higgins said that CAFB will use the grant for a joint land use study that will come in handy next time the federal government discusses base closings.
“This grant will make the base bigger, better, and stronger…that’s what you wanna have when they are looking to close bases” Higgins said.
Higgins went on to say that the LINK staff will make an appearance in front of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors shortly to get their approval on an expansion plan for Aurora Flight Sciences. The expansion to their facility at the Global Industrial Aerospace Park will bring an additional 250 jobs to the area. Higgins noted it would not be possible without the help of local leadership.
“We are lucky, folks. We have a good group in the city- and in Lowndes county. They do what it takes to get the business here- which gets the jobs here. I’m proud to have them working with us.” Higgins said.
The LINK CEO then announced the somewhat surprising news that the LINK had obtained an option to purchase The Gilmer Inn and an adjoining building (known to locals as the old Brumleys Sporting Goods). Higgins said that the options, approved by the LINK executive board, were set for a duration of 12 months. Shortly after securing the options, the LINK transferred them to downtown developer Mark Castleberry.
Castleberry is now given the task of finding a nationally-known hotel chain to occupy the space. Higgins said that although many chains have been contacted, he was not a liberty to discuss names.
“It is going to be a great addition to downtown. The plan is to tear down the Gilmer and utilize its’ footprint to build a more modern hotel. It will be great to have a quality hotel so close to the CVB and the Trotter. The facade of the building will be mad to fit in with the classic design of downtown, but the inside will have all the modern amenities” Higgins said.
Higgins speculated the development process would take less than a year, with cost estimates running in the neighborhood of $10 million dollars. Mark Castleberry said a goal for the project would be to keep the historic feel of the property while maximizing the space. He noted that the rear parking lot of the current Gilmer Inn is much lower than the Main St. side and could accommodate five to six stories without breaking the current downtown skyline. Castleberry said projects of this size typically have somwhere around 88 rooms.