Harvard biz faculty educated on West Point’s revitalization

Community Counseling Services Region 7 Executive Director Jackie Edwards speaks on a panel of personalities responsible for forming the Golden Triangle Regional Development LINK. Edwards and others fielded questions from faculty of the Harvard Business School on Tuesday at a breakfast event at the Mill Conference Center in Starkville (Photo by Ryan Phillips, DTL)

A group of about 20 faculty members from the prestigious Harvard Business School paid a visit to the Golden Triangle early this week and were given a firsthand account of how the economy has grown and evolved in the region.

The visit was geared toward faculty members learning about the region’s economic success and growth over the last decade, in addition to letting them meeting local government and economic development officials.

A breakfast event was hosted Tuesday morning at the Mill Conference Center in Starkville and a panel discussion consisting of the personalities responsible for the formation of the Golden Triangle Regional Development LINK

As questions were asked to a panel, one struck home for the city of West Point and Clay County.

“After the Sara Lee plant closed how did you give people hope?”

Community Counseling Services Region 7 Executive Director Jackie Edwards was president of the Growth Alliance in West Point when the domino-effect of closings for Sara Lee and Bryan Foods led to an economic development nightmare for Clay County.

The region’s economy has since improved dramatically, from unemployment bottoming out above 20 percent in 2008 to the most recent 6.1 percent for September.

While fortunes have brightened for West Point and Clay County, Edwards weathered the darkest days,

“We had like four or five industries close in like one year, Sara Lee, Bryan Foods was the largest one,” Edwards answered. “It was overwhelming.”

Edwards said West Point was fortunate for the Growth Alliance acting as an economic development umbrella for both the city and county, while other regions may be more compartmentalized.

Still, Edwards had to face the challenge of what to do when tackling unemployment that ranged between 21 and 24 percent.

“We didn’t have to go out and beg the city and the county to talk,” she said. “We were already there. We had a mayor and a selectman, we had our chancery clerk and our Board of Supervisors.”

The group - at the suggestion of Sen. Thad Cochran - began to focus on a regional concept of economic development.

The local economic development board, which normally met once a month, began meeting every Tuesday to discuss ideas and then began reaching out to other successful markets to find a formula that worked for them.

“Then somebody said they are doing a lot of stuff over in Columbus, Jackie,” Edwards said. “Well I didn’t know that, even though I have one of my offices in Columbus. I didn’t know all of this industry was being developed out there, but it really never dawned on me who did it, so we invited Joe Max (Higgins) to come.”

When Edwards was told they would be welcomed into the LINK, it ignited a passion for getting things right.

“I have been passionate about trying to make it work and not screw it up and we just ride the tail of Joe Max Higgins,” she said.

Higgins told the Daily Times Leader following the panel discussion it is important to not judge someone or something based on one or two aspects, but rather the whole body and then decide.

“I think they’ve learned some stuff from us and we’ve certainly learned some stuff from them,” Higgins said. “I may volunteer to take a bunch of our group up to Cambridge to spend some time with them.”

The visiting group of faculty was led by Senior Associate Dean for Research Jan W. Rivkin, who told the Daily Times Leader that a divide doesn’t so much as exist between the academic world and the blue collar heartland, but said is it about what part of the world does one pay attention to.

“I think in the deep history of Harvard Business School, we have tried to understand heartland businesses and middle America and really all aspects of America,” Rivkin said. “But in recent years we have paid more attention to global issues and tended to go around the world and look at things. We’re not doing less of that, we just realized we have been missing things.”

Higgins said the biggest takeaway he had from the experience was the impact on artificial intelligence, robotics and a changing industry.

“(Rivkin) told us last night he’s got a (venture capital) company working on a robot that washes glasses, like a human,” Higgins said. “Guess what? Those jobs go away.”

Rivkin said the most valuable takeaway for him came in the form of seeing collaboration among local governments, industry and economic development officials.

During their visit, the group toured Steel Dynamics Incorporated, PACCAR Engine Company, the EMCC Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Mississippi State University’s National Strategic Planning and Research Center.

“If you’re here in town, you may not recognize it, but it’s kind of like asking the fish ‘How the water?’” Rivkin said. “The fish doesn’t know the water is wet. But we hear from the outside, you notice people have the trust to work together in innovative ways to advance the interest of the community and that’s not something to be taken for granted.”