Mississippi’s Golden Boy

President Kennedy said, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” It’s amazing what one man can do to turn a flagging regional economy around—with energy, a can-do attitude and little help from his friends.

Joe Max Higgins is an economic developer with some serious street cred. In 10 short years, he’s brought 6,000 jobs and nearly $6 billion in investment to the nation’s poorest state in terms of per capita income—turning an economically depressed region of Mississippi into “the Golden Triangle.” He’s been featured in the Atlantic magazine and on PBS. He’s been named Person of the Year by the Mississippi Business Journal; he’s got his own Wikipedia page. He’s even been featured on “60 Minutes.”

With a fiery personality and boundless energy, he is an endless source of fascination, and—for the people of Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties—a godsend.

Here, he sits down with his friend and partner at TVA Economic Development Senior Vice John Bradley to tell his story.

TVA's John Bradley: With your experience, any top economic development firm in the country would hire you. How did you end up in Columbus, Mississippi?

Joe Max Higgins: A national headhunter called me and "Hey, I've got a job I want you to look at in Columbus, Mississippi." I said, "You've got to be kidding me. I don't even know where Columbus, Mississippi is, and if it was any place, I would know," and I hung up on her!

Then, I started looking up Columbus, the Golden Triangle, and I started seeing what was here: Mississippi State University, the Tenn-Tom Waterway, access to six railroads and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Golden Triangle was in better shape than most any other place I'd seen, and I said, "You know, for some reason, they're not winning. We need to figure out what that is." I called the headhunter back, and I said, "Hey, I'm interested in talking about that job, because those guys should be winning."

How you did start winning?

In a short period of time, we started working with you—our friends at Tennessee Valley Authority—and at the Mississippi Development Authority, and started getting leads coming in. And the culture started to change.

The thing that changed it forever, I think, is when TVA came out with that megasite program. We competed for a megasite designation. We won it, and very shortly thereafter, the Steel Dynamics came, and the rest has been downhill.

TVA’s megasite program has been extremely successful across the Valley. Tell us your story about applying for the megasite program in the Golden Triangle.

A megasite had certain specs you had to meet. You had to have 1,000 developable acres; had to have a railroad, preferably two—preferably class one. You had to be 50 miles from a commercial airport. You had to have four-lane highways. You had to be an attainment area. When TVA unveiled it in Nashville, everybody—and I mean everybody, the full cast of characters—showed up came out to see it. And I looked and I said, “We meet all those criteria!”

So we came back and we had six weeks to do all of our engineering design, to put in our water, sewer and roads. We worked 12 hours days, seven days a week for six weeks to put it together. And Columbus and Hopkinsville, Ky., were the first two megasites.

We’ve competed for megasites four more times. We won the Lowndes County Megasite, where Steel Dynamics is. We did the Crossroads Megasite, where PACCAR is.  We did the Prairie Belt Powersite in West Point—that one was not designated as a TVA megasite, but that’s where Yokohama is. And last summer we unveiled the Infinity Megasite, which is TVA-certified, and we have four companies looking at that site now. So three of nine TVA-certified megasites are in Lowndes County.

What other ways do you work with TVA?

We use technical services extensively when we're marketing to certain companies. We get the TVA Economic Development team to do a lot of virtual tours of our megasites. We couldn't do without the great rates and reliability. TVA is gold standard in that case.

Also, the industrial recruiting arm works hand-in-glove with us when we have prospects in—they help us work on the rates, they help us work on the sites. I mean, they're not opposed to picking up somebody's suitcase and loading it in a helicopter, or loading it in a car, whatever it takes. They're always there for us.

In your experience what sets TVA apart from other energy companies?

Well, I've worked with power companies, and they come in, they're there to buy the dinner. They're there to furnish the transportation. They're there to talk about how great they are. What sets you apart is that you've got members on your team that'll be in this office with us at 10:00 on Saturday night working on a proposal. Whatever it takes. And, what sets TVA apart is your customer service, your unrelenting attention to the needs of your service territory.

How does your mission dovetail with TVA’s mission of service to the people of the Tennessee Valley?

I think that our goal is the same: to make our place a better place. You know, I tell our people, "When you walk out the door here, every day, if you haven't done at least one thing to make this be a better place, don't come back." And, I think that's what the mission of TVA too: let's make our place a better place, today, tomorrow, the next day and the next day.

What gives you job satisfaction?

Any time a man or a woman comes up and says, "Hey, I want to thank you for what y'all are doing. We've got a better opportunity now. I've got a better job." That story never gets old. And, it happens a lot and it kind of keeps everybody grounded, remembering why we do what we do.

How do you measure success and know you are making a difference for your community?

Lance Walters is a general manager at PACCAR, and he told me that when they first came here, about every three months on an off day—like a Saturday or Sunday when the plant wasn't working—they would bring steam cleaners out and clean the parking lot where the cars were dripping with oil. He recently told me, after eight years of production, "We don't do that anymore." The people that work for them, they've made money. I'm not saying everybody at PACCAR has a brand-new car, but I'm going to tell you that the cars don't leak on the parking lot at PACCAR anymore. That's probably a good way to show how people's quality of life has changed.

12 Winning Seasons with Site Selector

For the 12th year in a row, TVA was named among America's top 10 utilities for economic development. And no wonder: Last year, TVA Economic Development efforts drove an incredible $8.3 billion in investment from nearly 250 companies (including Bridgestone, Google, GM, GE Aviation, Bowling Green Metal Forming and Agero), and created 72,000 jobs across its seven-state service region. Read more about these incredible award-winning achievements.