This is the story of a man, and a region, and of the tradeoffs that go into the modern movement of industries. What did it take to bring an advanced-tech steel mill, a helicopter factory, a drone plant, and a major new tire works to a corner of the country where the unemployment rate is very high and many educational and sociological indicators are very low? And how much better off is the region for the arrival of these new enterprises? What did it give up, and what did it gain?
The region in question is part of the so-called "Black Prairie" of Mississippi and Alabama. That name refers to its soil type, as shown by the sweep of this map from the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University (which is in the region).
The Black Prairie also coincides with the "Black Belt" of these two states in the historical and sociological sense of the term, a region with a high concentration of slave-labor plantations before the Civil War and of African-American population ever since then. One part of this Black Prairie has renamed itself the "Golden Triangle," as shown below and as reported in our previous dispatches. It's the area between the cities of Columbus, West Point, and Starkville, and it is where these new factories have come.
The background on our story starts here, with a roundup of some of the industries that have come to the Golden Triangle. It continues here, on the near-impossibility of untangling the influences of history, international economic trends, institutional and corporate culture, and individual mistakes or insights in understanding why things "succeed" or "fail" in a given area. It continues here, about the particular burden of race in explaining American events in general and Mississippi developments in particular. It is complemented here and here, with reports by Deb Fallows on the ambitious educational efforts underway at a public school in the Golden Triangle. And it will continue this afternoon in a broadcast version on Marketplace and later with at least one more installment by me, about Mississippi's version of "career technical" education.
On Marketplace today you'll hear about, and from, a Golden Triangle figure named Joe Max Higgins, along with his colleague Brenda Lathan and others. This is more about what they have done, and how, and to what effect.
That's Higgins's license plate, at the top of this item. He obviously loves spelling out the "2EQLAST" joke: In the economic development business, coming in second equals coming in last. You get the deal, or you don't—and there's no reward for a near miss or giving it a good try. It's a subtler version of the standard signature line in his email messages: "Live every second as if your ASS is on fire."
You've heard talk like this from any number of football coaches, and Higgins's talk about his region's prospect is very much that of a coach. Two examples, of many possibilities:
• On what he thought when he considered moving to the Golden Triangle from Arkansas, a dozen years ago:
"When the headhunter called and said I want you to look at a position in Mississippi, I said you gotta be kidding me! I hear 'Mississippi,' and I hear poverty, despair, no future, and no hope for a future.
"Then we drove through here, the azaleas were in boom; it was pretty. My wife said we should at least look the place over. We looked at what God gave 'em, and what they were doing with it. And I said, There's no reason in the world these folks aren't winning! But they're not."
Within "they're not" was the whole range of local economic woes, from a starting point of low income and high unemployment, to a recent wave of factory closures among the low-tech, low-wage small firms that have moved to the South from the Depression era onward.
Higgins went back to the headhunter. "I said, here’s what I want: Audited financial statements, budgets, all this kind of stuff. I spent weeks just looking at stuff. Came to conclusion, these guys should be hitting home runs, but they’re not even getting to the plate. That's an opportunity." So he signed on.
• On what has happened since then, Higgins showed us a very detailed chart of all the industries that have included the Golden Triangle in their site selection during his time here, the number that went ahead, what that meant in terms of capital investment and tax revenues, and what it's meant in jobs. To put it in perspective:
"If you take it strictly on investment, deals we won versus deals we lost, we're batting .442! And some of those deals we lost are ones we said, go away, we're not interested. But now, in jobs, we're batting .241. So how good are we, really? Two-forty-one is maybe better than most, but it won't get you into the hall of fame, not unless you can play second base like a champ. But .442 will get you into the Hall!" And on to an argument about why the average had to go up.
Everything about Joe Max Higgins's talk, walk, body language, and comportment is go, go, go; do, do, do. A recent profile of him by William Browning in the Columbus-based Catfish Alley magazine pointed out that Higgins, who is burly by anyone's standards, used to go through two six-packs of Diet Coke per day. Now he has backed down to just eating packs of an "energy powder" called Spark. Here he was earlier this month:
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The Golden Triangle's first big win was its certification as a TVA "Megasite" ten years ago. The Megasite system was a way for TVA to speed investment within its region by pre-clearing certain sites as being project-ready. They had the infrastructure, they had the permits, they had enough contiguous land, and everything else. As a Federal Reserve report described them:
The Tennessee Valley Authority coined the term in 2004 for sites in the TVA region that could be deemed worthy of large-scale development—1,000 acres in size, environmentally clean, and accessible to transportation and utilities, among other criteria.
For more about the Megasite program, you can see this and this from the TVA; for more about what it meant to the Golden Triangle, you can see this, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For instance, the headline of the Fed Reserve assessment is, "Megasites Spur Big Turnaround for Mississippi Region."
The point for now is that Higgins and his colleagues at the "Link" development organization for the Golden Triangle threw themselves all-in to the competition to be awarded Megasite status. As he put it:
"The TVA was tired of every beanfield, cotton field, corn field in anytown USA saying, 'We're going to have the next Toyota-Nissan-Mercedes plant!' So they hired a prominent national consultant to design the criteria for certification.
"Everybody showed up. The could be’s, the wannabes, the never-were's, and thought-they-were's, they all showed up." All the candidate regions were asked to provide simulations of how they would handle major new investments, and to provide specs on every economic, infrastructure, labor-market, and environmental consequence of economic growth.