By Guest Columnist Joy Foy
North Madison County Economic Development Council (NMED) was organized in April, 2016, to improve housing and economic development in Northeast Madison County. The group chaired by Dr. Pallascene Cole has been busy pushing forward the possibilities and options for needed changes to enhance the economic development potential for the north end of Madison County. (A map of the county that NMED represents is pictured.) According to Dr. Cole, “NMED is a private entity independent of any political affiliation.”
On Thursday, August 19, 2021, a meeting of the NMED and the Madison County Business League & Foundation’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee heard from Madison County Supervisor Paul Griffin, Madison County Economic Development Authority’s (MCEDA) Chief Operating Officer, Stacy Lester, Superintendent of Education for Madison County Schools, Charlotte Seals, along with members of the NMED Board. The meeting was informal with Superintendent Seals serving as Facilitator and members of the audience offering opinions and recommendations during the presentations. The NMED and Supervisor Paul Griffin outlined and discussed the concerns the groups are focusing on in the area. Everyone seemed to agree the issues were 1.) lack of available housing; 2.) having nothing to do and 3.) broad band accessibility and their importance in that order.
John Wallace, retired Director of Canton Municipal Utilities and long-time Madison County economic developer has always said, “The jobs will follow infrastructure, but true economic development is measured basically by the people you can attract to live in your area.” Dr. Cole and her Board which include First Vice Chair Earnestine Bilbrew, Second Vice Chair Dr. Pollia Griffin, Secretary Doris Sutherland, Treasurer Dr. Mary Sims-Johnson, Financial Advisor Diane Shaw-Day, and Board Members Major Willie Cline and Edd Hightower, are working with MCEDA and the Madison County Board of Supervisors to get things into place to attract people to live in north Madison County.
Supervisor Griffin talked about the Sulfur Springs Lake and he also reported that the county has $10M in federal funds to invest in roads, sewer, and/or broadband with an additional $10M coming. According to him, the 300 miles of broadband needed by the north east Madison County area would cost around $16M. He is very hopeful that some of this federal funding can go toward the north county broad band infrastructure, thus making it possible to live in rural Madison County and work anywhere in the world. Arnel Bolden, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee made the observation that cabins in the area would help to attract people to north Madison County. Several in the group agreed with his recommendation noting the beauty of the rural area as a natural draw to anyone who visited.
Stacy Lester reported on the role that MCEDA is addressing to put the north end of the county in a better position to attract growth. She pointed out that the needs for the north end are different than for the south end of the county. She said that MCEDA is working with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to obtain a sewer system for this area. She talked about the five-acre site MCEDA has purchased at the corner of Highway 17 and Sulfur Springs Road, and that they are taking bids now for clearing and grubbing of the site. Both a new sewer and cleared available land are expected to help attract developers. She announced that a housing developer from California had expressed interest to MCEDA in the area. She also shared that MCEDA is looking to partner with Sacred Heart Parish to build a retirement community. Stacy explained that MCEDA is exploring all leads hoping to build adequate housing in a price range that makes sense for the area and begin addressing the housing shortage. “Getting sewer to this area will be a big plus in the housing issue and as well as helping to attract other development,” Stacy said.
Back when I worked at MCEDA, a group from Madison County went to Chattanooga to look at rural lake development as a means to create an inviting area for people to purchase property and build homes. The efforts failed twenty years ago because developers were unwilling to invest in a market that could possibly take years to see returns. Back then, it was noted that the remoteness of the area and the distance from the economic growth of the metro area were big obstacles to selling lots even around a designed lake development. For those people who have lived for years in the Velma Jackson, Farmhaven, or Sharon areas, a drive into town doesn’t seem too far. However, for the person making the trip for the first time, it feels really inconvenient and slow to get to the doctor, grocery or service stations. Now that a recreational seventeen-acre lake is a reality, thanks to the Madison County Board of Supervisors, complete with a Healthplex center, picnic pavilion, restrooms, walking trails, and recreational grounds, the residents have something to do and the lake is also seen as an attraction to draw others to north Madison County.
While this area is in the Madison County School District, usually a big plus in driving development, the schools (Velma Jackson, Shirley Simmons, and Camden Elementary) in this area have been declining in enrollment. The dropping in enrollment of the schools has been a concern for several years according to Superintendent Seals, however, the schools report card scores are improving.
To keep the communities informed, the group distributes flyers and post updates on the NMCD website and on their Facebook page. They have obtained a 501c3 status and are currently working with the USDA to get funding for a youth internship program. They envision these youths will be hired to train local citizens in using new technology for possible online classes and telemedicine opportunities. They are serving as an advisory committee to the Supervisors for the startup to the Sulphur Springs Healthplex and the Recreation Park. NMED is very excited with the investment MCEDA and the Madison County Board of Supervisors have given to north end of the county and that developer’s interest in the area has improved. Dr. Cole and the NMED Board agree that it is exciting times and the potential improves with each of these accomplishments. Soon the lake development will have the fencing complete and the NMED Board invites everyone to come and visit.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Joy Foy is married to James Foy and is a retired Economic Developer with the Mississippi Economic Development Authority. Foy is an active participant in the community of Canton. She is a member of the Canton Lions Club, the Keep Canton Beautiful Committee and the Canton Beautification Committee.