BY BRIAN JONES
MAYHEW – National, state and local dignitaries attended the groundbreaking for East Mississippi Community College’s Communiversity on Dec. 9. Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves was the keynote speaker.
The Communiversity is a workforce training facility that will be located on the frontage road west of the Paccer site, on about 30 acres of land donated by the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
The $42 million project includes a 135,000 square foot facility will provide job training for EMCC students and dual enrollment classes for high school students. It was developed through a partnership between EMCC, the Golden Triangle Development LINK, the federal Appalachian Regional Commission and boards of supervisors from Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties.
“Undoubtedly there is somebody driving down the highway thinking that we’re announcing a new plant today,” joked LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins. “The plant announcements are what everybody lives for and what they want to get their picture taken doing, but there has to be some work done before those plants can come. When we go out and develop a megasite and then a deal happens, they don’t know about the work that went on behind the scenes. What you’re seeing here is what we need to do to succeed, to separate ourselves from the pack.
“This is going to bring untold benefits for this region, not for today, for next week or next year, but for our kids and our grandkids,” he said. “It’s a big damn deal, and it happened because a lot of people worked on it.”
Consultant Bill Fruth, president of the POLICOM Corporation, helped develop a plan to spark growth in the Golden Triangle region, Higgins said.
“One of the things that he recommended for all three counties was workforce training,” Higgins said. “He said you need to be at the forefront of it. He said you need to figure out a way to build a facility where people can come for training and retraining. I’ll never forget what he said. We need to build a place and equip it with a staff to ‘inspire youth for a lifetime of work.’”
Higgins credited Reeves for not just giving the project state backing, but forcing the LINK and local agencies to come up with some of their own funding.
“Mac Portera went down to Jackson to ask for money,” he said. “The number we were shooting for was about $38 million. The story I heard was that he went down and he got an audience with (Reeves). He said he needed $38 million. Portera came back with a commitment of $8 million. We were still $30 million short. We needed to put our money where our mouth is, so we decided to go to the counties and ask for $13.5 million. We brought those boards of supervisors in and told them what we need. Then the question came up how much, and we went around and gave them each an amount. Somebody asked if that was a formula we had come up with, and I said no. To whom much is given, much is expected, and each county was going to give what they could. They didn’t hesitate a bit. They committed $13.5 million, and (Portera) went back down to Jackson again. He was told the state would give us $10 million more.
“We knew that the state was going to play, and that the supes were going to play,” Higgins said. “We also thought that the feds would play, so we talked to the members of our delegation. He got $6 million in the first tranche, and $10 million in the second. For those of you doing the math, we’re over the $38 million. We were able to make the school better and the equipment better.
“If he had just given us $38 million, we wouldn’t have had skin in the game,” Higgins said. “What he did was the equivalent of teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish.”
Reeves mentioned the recent 60 Minutes piece on the Golden Triangle’s economic success.
“What came to my mind when I saw that, and quite frankly what this day is about, is that on that program people all over the United States of America saw Mississippi winning,” Reeves said. “They saw us winning in economic development. When I was growing up I was taught that there wasn’t any such thing as a participation trophy. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m playing basketball, or checkers or chess with my kids, or anything else, I want to win.
“If I think about economic development, and what winning in economic development means, it has an even more special meaning,” he said. “When you win in economic development, capital is invested in our state. When capital is invested and jobs are created, individual people’s lives are changed forever. Your family members and your friends have an opportunity for their lives to be changed forever.
“If Starkville or West Point or Columbus are playing each other in basketball, they ought to be trying to kick each other’s butts,” Reeves said. “But when it comes to economic development, our competitors are not each other. Our competitors are Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and in some instances China and Japan and places all around the world. If we are going to be successful in
l See EMCC, Page 13A
economic development, we must do it working together.”
The Communiversity will be “transformational” in how business and industry is recruited, Reeves said.
“What we’ve proven as a state is that Toyota or Nissan or Paccar is going to locate here, and they tell us the skills that they need for their individuals who are going to be working there, we have a system in place that will allow us to train specific workers for specific jobs,” he said. “We are very good at that. However, if we are going to be successful in the long term, we’ve got to turn it around exactly the opposite of that. We have to be training the workforce, when then in and of itself will recruit the Toyotas and the Paccars and the Nissans.
“This project is a transformational opportunity whereby you have the critical mass of employers in this region of the state where you can justify the local investment in this project and you can turn out 100 or 500 or a thousand trained workers in and of themselves will be able to recruit business and industry here,” he said.
ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl said the Appalachian region was the next great investment opportunity in America.
“The leadership and commitment like what we’ve seen here in the Golden Triangle is what supports that argument,” Gohl said. “It is what really helps me make sure that I’m not just a liar, that there is proof that there are great opportunities here that people are able to put together. Bringing this facility to a reality is just one more step in the relationship between workforce development and economic development.”
“I’m not going to shortchange (Higgins), but when you’ve got railroad, waterways, electricity and water and sewer and land and everything it makes his job real easy,” said Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders. “The hard part he has to deal with is supplying the people to work in these factories. Behind the scenes the LINK has done a very good job of figuring out a way of getting the workforce training.”
“It’s easy to think of this as just a new building,” said EMCC President Dr. Tom Huebner. “It is tempting to think that the employees of EMCC just advise, instruct and direct. But our work is so much more than that, our efforts are so much greater. Last night, for example, I met a 24-year-old woman who picked up the broken pieces of her life and walked through the doors of EMCC. She told me through tears in her eyes how her life was going to be different because she came to us. I was introduced to a 50-year-old woman who had had stable work for decades, but then things got tight she found herself without work, and she decided to retool at EMCC. She graduated last night and now she is about to start work, and to start supporting her family again.
“It’s easy to think of this as a new building, but it is really so much more,” he said. “It will be a promise dedicated to changing the trajectories of people and providing the promise of a better future for this entire region.”