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  • Bob Arnold

Free community college developer’s wish

By Bob Arnold

Free community college developer’s wish
Garrick Combs

Following a year that saw completion of a major industrial investment and a small manufacturer and several retail organizations beginning operations, Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce (BLCCC) and Brookhaven-Lincoln County Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Garrick Combs is thinking about things that would make his work in economic development easier.


            If the economic development fairy could grant him one wish, Combs says it would be free community college for persons who don’t participate in the labor force for lack of skills employers require.


            “In talking to prospective employers, we can show them that 750,000 people -- 360,000 between 18 and 24 years old -- live within a 60-minute commute of Brookhaven and Lincoln County, but an important issue for them is that only 45 percent of working age adults participate in the labor force compared to 50 percent statewide and 60 percent nationally,” Combs explains.  “Lack of childcare facilities and public transportation are factors, but the cost of community college is an important difference from other parts of the state.”


            In northern Mississippi, business support has helped fund free community college education, and Combs believes the same models there could be implemented in southwest Mississippi.


            Yet if there are ways to do better, Combs adds “we, nevertheless, have had a good couple of years with a lot of industrial investment.”


            During 2023, Emory Dry Ice, a Houston-based company which supplies Omaha Steaks and United Airlines, opened a 20,000-square foot facility that created 20 jobs compensating workers $70,000 each through a $10 million investment on Industrial Park Road in Brookhaven.


            At the same time in a July ceremony, AITX, formerly American Rail Car, celebrated completion of a $32 million investment in property, redevelopment, construction and equipment -- the region’s largest industrial expansion in decades -- and opened for full service on Industrial Park Road in Brookhaven.  With more than 100 new workers, it is doing complete repair and maintenance of all types of rail cars at the new facility, while continuing a similar rail car operation in Franklin County as long as there is short line service to the location.  The project included a new rail spur into the area.  Wages and benefits for the new jobs at the Brookhaven operation are 110 per cent of the state average, Combs says.


            Combs, whose work focuses exclusively on industry, also cited new retail businesses settling in Brookhaven --T.J. Max, Rally’s, Starbucks and Huey Magoos -- through the efforts of a specialized business development organization paid by the BLCCC tourism committee with funds it receives from With funds it receives from a two percent sales tax assessed Brookhaven hotels and motels.  The Council also uses the tax monies to build retail traffic and stimulate sales at existing stores through social media and special events – in the process, generating convincing data for retail organizations looking for new markets. 


            In 2023, an agreement was also reached with Walmart Distribution Center under a new Mississippi law to pay a fee over the next ten years in lieu of a taxes as an incentive reward for its $180 million investment in automation and new technology at the Brookhaven facility.  Over ten years, Brookhaven and Lincoln County government and local schools will each receive approximately $100,000 and Co-Lin will get somewhat less from the Walmart fees.  “Although Walmart did not create new jobs with its investment, it made a commitment to long-term involvement in the community with it, and the fee in lieu tax agreement demonstrates its material support to community life,” Combs says.


            At the start of 2024, industrial interest in the area is “surprisingly strong,” but will probably slow down as business investors delay decisions during an election year, Combs predicts.  He says a spec 50,000 industrial building in Linbrook Business Park ready for a business to set up operations will continue to be the focal point of marketing geared to attracting industrial companies to the area.  Mississippi Economic Development Council (MEDC) has recognized the unique BLCC-CLCEDA economic development model centered around speculative industrial buildings to lure an employers that want to deploy workers and machinery to get products to market as quickly as possible without a long wait to construct manufacturing facilities. 


“Ninety percent of companies looking to locate a facility want an existing building rather than raw land on which to build,” Combs points out.  A web site which promotes the building is the initial BLCC-BLCEDA connection to industrial organizations seeking a business location followed by numerous meetings and telephone calls with prospects.  “Our strategy is to stimulate interest with a spec building, sell it and reload with another building,” Combs explains.  “We also show prospective employers how we can support them through worker training and job fairs for their recruiting.”


Even if the prospective employer doesn’t find the spec building suitable, Combs can often suggest alternatives as he did in bringing Emory Dry Ice to Brookhaven last year.


This year, Combs also expects Southwest Electric (SE), which provides electrical power to area business and residential customers, to move forward with the purchase of land for a Brookhaven district headquarters with a dispatch office, IT services, a full warehouse, mechanic shop, a truck staging area and laydown yard to house emergency storm crews so its staff, material and equipment are distributed across the SE service area to better serve its 25,000 members in Lincoln, Copiah, Franklin, Amite, Adams, Hinds, Jefferson and Wilkinson Counties and increase overall system reliability.  “SE has an option on the land, which had some wetlands issues, but it has recommitted to its purchase, and it should happen this year, although groundbreaking for the new facility probably won’t happen until 2025,” says Combs


Based at Lorman, Mississippi, in Jefferson County, SE plans to invest  $16 million and create 100 jobs with location of a district office on 65 acres in Brookhaven's Linbrook Business Park.  SE, which incorporated in 1937, operates its headquarters facility at Lorman and a work center at Natchez.


On the retail side, a new Brookhaven grocery store remains a high priority.  “We believe there is a need and there is a good business opportunity, but our data so far has not yet convinced a prospect,” says Combs.


All and all, Combs says, the area has bright future with challenges to confront.


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