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New Albany Renaissance III, selling Union County

Just how many publicly paid "boosters" does a city really need?

New Albany's former post office, now houses UCDA

Early afternoon in late spring in North Mississippi.

Thunderstorm rolling in from the west.

It was an event, an economic development event, and it had several things in common with dozens of such events that went on that same day around the United States:

*Announcement of a new business opening or expanding operations in the community.

*Several dozen public officials and business people gathered under a tent and eight or ten men sat on a temporary stage facing the crowd.

*It was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work involving many people: Telephone calls. Face-to-face meetings, breakfasts, lunches, etc. Considerable travel by airplanes and automobiles. Exchanges of statistical and other information. Offers. Counter-offers. A handshake or two. Finally, a deal made.

This particular event was in New Albany, Mississippi, on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Heavy rain began pounding the tent as the program began. A couple of television crews and still photographers made sure their equipment was going to stay dry and that they were where they needed to be to shoot the pictures their editors wanted.

Josh West, industrial recruiter for Union County, and David Beckmann, CEO of  Emerald Home Furnishings of Tacoma, Washington, were two of the people on the stage. They were there to announce that Emerald would open a manufacturing operation in what was previously the Hickory Springs plant on Denmill Road in east New Albany.

It was a big deal for New Albany: Emerald expected to make a seven-figure investment in the facility and to provide jobs for 150 workers when the plant is operational.

New Albany Mayor Tim Kent and a person from the Mississippi state business recruiting operation spoke briefly.

It is an election year, so the governor of Mississippi showed up and made a speech. It’s unlikely Governor Phil Bryant knew anything whatever about Emerald coming to New Albany until well after the deal was done, but everyone applauded politely.

Emerald CEO David Beckman, a distinguished-looking, beautifully dressed man with long gray hair was impressive as he spoke. He told what his company hopes to accomplish with the New Albany facility.

Beckmann uniquely impressed Joanne Lesley, administrative assistant at the Union County Development Association (UCDA), when, after the event was over, he got himself and his nice clothes thoroughly wet in the rain, helping reload the several armfuls of gear she had brought to set up the event. Joanne is not accustomed to getting that kind of help from high-ranking executives, and she was grateful for it. Beckmann is apparently a wise man who knows how to lend a hand and create a genuinely good first impression.

The other main speaker was Josh West. West, a keen and friendly man of perhaps 30 years, works for the Three Rivers Planning and Development District, which is based in Pontotoc. He is responsible for recruiting new industry for New Albany and Union County. The Emerald decisions was by no means his first success at recruiting new industry to our community, and city and county officials seem pleased with his performance.

The City of New Albany and Union County each pay $40,000 per year to Three Rivers for industrial recruiting services, including the work Josh West does. West is on the Three Rivers payroll, and Randy Kelly, the legally blind economic development impresario that heads Three Rivers, is his boss. The city and county made the deal to pay Three Rivers $80,000  per year for industrial recruiting work when former UCDA director, Steve Sorrels, resigned several years ago, after doing a yeoman’s job. Sorrells’ success was clearly visible, even to outsiders, and he left New Albany to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

After Steve Sorrells left UCDA, the deal was struck to contract industrial recruitment to Three Rivers, with service to existing local industries to be handled by UCDA. Joanne Lesley, who was executive assistant to Sorrells, continues in that capacity at UCDA. Phil Nanney, a long-time music educator, church music director and former salesman for an engineering firm, was hired as executive director of UCDA.

In addition to the $40,000 Union County pays to Three Rivers, the county also appropriates $75,000 directly for UCDA each year.

To add even more figures to the equation, Union County gives $12,000 to the Main Street Association, a separate, private membership organization that concentrates its efforts on helping merchants in downtown New Albany. The county government thus pays a total of $127,000 per year for economic development, including the payment to Three Rivers and the financial support it gives two private membership organizations.

As stated earlier, the City of New Albany pays $40,000 each year to Three Rivers for its industrial recruiting work. The City of New Albany also pays $30,000 per year directly into UCDA and dispenses $44,000 annually to the Main Street Association.

Including its payments to UCDA, to Main Street and to Three Rivers the city is spending $124,000 per year for economic development work.

Thus the City of New Albany and the Union County government, between them, spend about a quarter million dollars a year for economic development work: $80,000 to Three Rivers and $171,000 total to UCDA and Main Street.

Both UCDA and Main Street also receive income in the form of membership dues from private businesses and individuals. Some additional funding goes to both organizations from grants.

The boards of directors of both UCDA and Main Street include ex-officio members representing the city government and the county government.

Main Street’s work is serving businesses in downtown New Albany. Main Street promotes activities downtown, including joint retail sales offerings and special events held on the plaza at the Tanglefoot trail head. It does not duplicate the industrial recruitment work done by Three Rivers and UCDA. Main Street’s work has actually become more valuable recently, with the opening of Tanglefoot Trail downtown. Their funding is not an issue.

The fact that new industries and additional jobs have been recruited to Union County, even during the national economic downturn that began in 2008, could be taken to show that industrial recruitment work funded by tax money is producing favorable results. However, there is substantial sentiment among elected officials, local business people and the public generally that some duplication of effort and even conflict may occur with two organizations –Three Rivers and UCDA — both supported by large appropriations of tax money, doing industrial recruitment work.

Both muncipal and county governments are in the process of developing budgets for the coming fiscal year. There is broad-based questioning in the community regarding the efficiency of spending public money to support two separate, possibly competing industrial recruitment organizations. With local governments planning their appropriations of public money for the coming year, there is no better time to consider this question.

For more on New Albany Renaissance:

Part I

Part II, Counting our blessings

Part IV, Sign language

 

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