BY ALEX HOLLOWAY
Special to Daily Times Leader
The Golden Triangle Region has an abundance of economic development potential, but the communities that comprise the region must take certain steps to create and maintain a skilled labor force to ensure that potential does not go to waste.
That was POLICOM Corporation President William Fruth’s message to Oktibbeha, Clay and Lowndes county residents and officials at a Golden Triangle Development LINK-hosted event at East Mississippi Community College on Tuesday to unveil the results of a regional economic development assessment. POLICOM Corporation is a Florida-based economic analysis firm.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said Fruth has worked with Clay and Lowndes counties on individual studies. He said Fruth’s regional study was the first he’d conducted for the Golden Triangle as a whole.
Higgins said the regional study’s purpose was to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the three counties that comprise it and to help elected and economic development officials craft a way to improve the region’s economic standings.
“Since we’ve added all three counties we’ve been talking to him about analyzing all three counties, telling us where MSU fits in, where EMCC fits in, what each county’s pros and cons were and kind of a snapshot of what we needed to do in each county to be successful,” Higgins said.
The LINK hired Fruth to conduct a $50,000 study, half of the cost of which C Spire paid.
Fruth said the Golden Triangle’s wide range of assets — including Mississippi State University and its research park, the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, and a number of industrial parks and developments such as Yokohoma Tire Corporation in Clay County — gave the region the tools to become the most dynamic micropolitan area in the United States if officials can find a way to incubate the skilled labor force necessary to take advantage of the region’s potential.
“One of the problems that could prevent that is your inability to provide a skilled workforce,” Fruth said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with training, because you have the training.”
Fruth said socio-economic, educational and cultural issues hampered the region’s ability to provide sufficiently-skilled workers to meet the needs of companies that might want to locate to the tri-county area. The biggest problem, he said, is an enormous percentage of the region’s population is not working. Fruth said 34,056, or 41 percent of the working-age population in the region, is not working.
Figures he provided Tuesday further broke down the spread of non-working adults as a percentage of each community to 15,152 (44 percent) in Oktibbeha County, 6,209 (50 percent) in Clay County and 12,695 (34 percent) in Lowndes County.
“There are individuals in the working-age population who work,” Fruth said. “There are individuals in the working-age population that have been laid off and are unemployed who are looking for work. Then there are people in the working-age population that are not looking for work. There are several reasons why they might not be working. They might be at home taking care of the kids, which is a choice. They may be wealthy individuals and have some cash on hand and decide to live off their cash. That’s a choice. But we have this massive number of people who are not working.”
Still, Fruth said the region has an abnormally-high number of out-of-work residents who draw on welfare programs. He said the challenge, and key to moving forward economically, would be finding some way to pull those individuals into the workforce.
“I look at Columbus and West Point and Starkville as a region and say 'My gosh, you’ve more geographic–economic assets than any small economy in the country,'” Fruth said. “Companies are going to come here. They’re going to create jobs. There’s going to be opportunity. We have to do something to inspire these individuals to leave entitlements and participate in this robust, exciting situation.”
To tackle the issue, Fruth suggested the communities in the region unite to create a multi-county economic development center that would provide programs to encourage economic participation and advancement for the region’s populace. He said the facility could provide programs to, among other goals, provide guidance on how to build a business, show school-age children what people do to earn money and expose the community to the region’s industry.
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