By Gary Perilloux
STARKVILLE -Six months after David Thornell assumed the helm of the new Greater Starkville Development Partnership, the 42-year-old Alabama native remains bullish on his new territory.
Or more precisely: bulldogish.
Listen to his take on chasing cars in Mississippi State University's back yard.
With Nissan, Honda and Mercedes plants in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, does the Starkville partnership think it can snag a significant automotive supplier soon?
"We sure do," he said. "We're talking to several and we're going to hang on like a good Bulldog should - till the very end - and try to convince one or more suppliers to locate here."
Thornell's done it before.
In seven years in Scottsboro, Ala., Thornell helped bring nearly 5,000 jobs and $930 million in capital investment to the northeast Alabama city - among them were three Japanese companies and a pair of automotive suppliers.
It helped that Scottsboro lies 40 miles from Huntsville and 60 miles from Chattanooga, Tenn.
But something he didn't have in Scottsboro - the assets of one of the nation's Top 50 research universities - helped woo Thornell to Starkville in April, shortly after Mississippi landed a nearly $1 billion Nissan automotive facility.
Among the partnership's goals for greater visibility is a new headquarters at the front of the Mississippi Research and Technology Park, opposite the entrance to Mississippi State University on U.S. Highway 82.
At a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million, the 9,000-square-foot center will house the Starkville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority and the Starkville Convention & Visitors Bureau. Construction should begin in early to mid-2002.
"You're making that first impression," Thornell said of the contemporary structure. "It will show we're taking our economic development seriously and our visitors seriously with such a quality facility."
The Daily Journal recently asked Thornell about his background and other goals he envisions after taking stock of his new Mississippi home.
Daily Journal: How did you come to Scottsboro, Ala., and how were you able to accomplish so much?
Thornell: I'm a native of Alabama and I spent most of my life there until I moved in April. (Scottsboro) was just my favorite part of the state, and the county, I felt, had a lot of potential between major four-lane Highway 72 between Huntsville and Chattanooga, with Huntsville being the hottest growth area for business in the state of Alabama. But Scottsboro could offer all the convenience of Huntsville without the inconvenience and higher costs. Fortunately, we were conveniently located for suppliers to Saturn and Nissan in Tennessee and Honda just 70 miles south of Scottsboro in Lincoln.
Daily Journal: Why is Mississippi - and specifically Starkville - the right fit for you now?
Thornell: Starkville is a great environment that's only getting better. The four-lane access is going to improve over the next couple of years. The university attracts attention nationwide. There are companies that are bringing their research needs to the university, problems that they need to solve. From NASA to defense corporations, many companies know of MSU's strength in research and engineering. There's a new Viking Range research and development center coming here and the Center for Advanced Vehicular Research. It will be partially staffed by Nissan employees and also university employees to solve design problems and develop better vehicles.
It makes Starkville not a typical Southern community and Mississippi just a good story to tell and package to sell to businesses that would have an interest in our good climate and high quality of life, low operation costs and educated work force that becomes stronger each year."
Daily Journal: How are your Vision 2005 goals shaping up: specifically, how will you create 1,200 high-tech jobs add 300 jobs at existing industries and 2,500 new indirect jobs in the 5-year period?
Thornell: I feel like we're in the second year of a 5-year goal and actually just getting started. So we do have a need to accelerate our program of job creation. Fortunately, we've had some large job-producing investments in the past year, especially with Service Zone (in the Mississippi Research and Technology Park). We fully expect them to be at 500 employees by the end of the year. And looking at economic development in broad terms, we have a Wal-Mart Supercenter that opened in March and that employs just under 300 people.
There's no magic. We're going to build on our strengths and we're going to become an advocate for existing business to help them with any problems and to capture any opportunities we have to grow. The high-tech jobs - that term is overused - but we've got a high-tech work force that lends itself to attracting technology-oriented jobs. So it's another advantage that the Starkville area has that many others would be envious of and couldn't create without the education facilities we have.
We can't control all of the factors that come into play - including that it would never be foreseen that we would be in a war that we didn't know we would be facing. We can't control the national economy, but we can do our best each day to make this the best place it can be."
Daily Journal: What would you list at the Starkville area's greatest strengths?
Thornell: I think one of our greatest strengths is that we do not have too many weakness and there are no weaknesses we can't overcome. We just have a good situation for many types of businesses and one of our challenges will be to target lists of industry types that we'll focus on. And putting together a task force to identify the targets and capitalize on any work force skills or research and educational aspects of this community that would be valuable to outside investors.
Daily Journal: What weaknesses do Oktibbeha County and Starkville need to address?
Thornell: We need to make sure we're keeping our work force competitive and work force development would be a key aspect of our partnership effort. We realize that community development precedes economic development so we're going to always focus on the product that we're packaging and promoting to investors. We are also anxious to see these (highway) bypass project completed and especially to have four-lane access to the major markets surrounding us. Those will give us a major push when completed. ... Companies are always looking at limiting factors so they can narrow down their list of possible locations. And it's been easy to mark Starkville off the list just because of that one flaw of lack of four-lane access. So we can never know how many opportunities we've missed because we haven't had that in place."
Daily Journal: Mississippi State University is playing a key role in the establishment of the Mississippi Crescent Initiative (a 36-county TVA-supported regional alliance from Oxford to Starkville). In what ways might the partnership participate in that effort?
Thornell: The Crescent Initiative gives us another opportunity to partner with our neighbors. Several leaders in our community are on (Crescent) committees that have been established. My being a newcomer, I've only attended the meetings but I've been impressed with the effort and the study to find the best way that we can to promote ourselves as a region that has anything and everything that companies would want.
I think when you combine all of our strengths as a geographic region in this country, it's going to be hard to ignore when companies look for the very best location for their plant. ... As a matter of fact, MSU will host the next Crescent meeting in late November."
Daily Journal: In launching the greater Starkville partnership, has there ever been some consideration given to creating a larger Golden Triangle economic development partnership? Or are there territorial and political boundaries that make a larger organization not feasible?
Thornell: "We want to keep our eyes and minds open to opportunities for cooperation between the Golden Triangle counties and cities. We feel that we're doing our best to act together and we want each of the cities to come together with strong organizations in place. So we can first begin to network and cooperate with each other from a position of strength. Each of the major communities has assets and resources that we certainly want to promote. (Thornell mentions a recent visit to Golden Triangle Regional Airport in support of an industrial prospect considering Columbus). We're supporting their efforts and can take advantage of the same lifestyle and the same work force and the same educational facilities. We have an airport; we have a landfill - we can do some recycling as a region.
But we need to look at other opportunities to promote the Golden Triangle. The only problem in a business location is that the governmental entities operate on the revenues that come directly from that location in their boundaries. So it's always the case that they're happier with direct benefits more than indirect. But we get along well with our neighboring communities and counties and look forward to opportunities presenting themselves for future cooperation and results.
Daily Journal: What are the top two or three priorities right now for building infrastructure and work force in the Starkville?
Thornell: We're still formulating a very specific marketing plan so that we can plan our work and work our plan. We've got the organization in place but the key is how well that we can work together on a daily basis. The challenge is always there to move forward and to decide what's best to do on daily basis."
Daily Journal: Where do you stand on the $1.5 million Vision 2005 fund-rising goal?
Thornell: We're just in excess of $1.4 million. We had a target goal of $1.2 million with the ultimate hope that we could reach $1.5 million. And I think we can certainly do that as others realize how serious we are and how serious the opportunities are."