What makes Marion County thrive? Opportunities for growth

By BRANDI PERRY,

In 1917, the Commerical Club of Columbia, now the Marion County Development Partnership, helped raise $50,000 from area citizens and 3,000 acres of farmland were donated in an attempt to convince the state of Mississippi to bring its new training institute to Columbia. The Mississippi Industrial and Training School, later called the Columbia Training School, moved in and immediately began hiring Marion County residents.

Today, a passerby to the expansive property will notice a little movement but otherwise a quiet atmosphere. But inside those property lines great things are happening.

Several new and existing businesses now call the Marion County BusinessPlex home. They range from a law enforcement training academy, a security systems company and even a drug court. But the sky is truly the limit for the property. 

“The Economic Development District has 384 acres ready for industrial development. It’s Project Ready Certified, which means an industry looking to make its home on the property doesn’t have to do all the research about their water, power and the costs associated with them,” Lori Watts, executive director of the Marion County Development Partnership, explained.

In 2008, there was very little life to the campus following the closure of the training school. But local officials worked hard until the state returned the campus section of the property back to the Marion County Board of Supervisors. Now 1,200 acres have been given back in total, including more than 400 acres in 2017 south of the Columbia-Marion County Airport for the development of an industrial park near the airport.

“We worked hand and hand with the Marion County Board of Supervisors to help put those buildings back into use so there was something valuable going on there,” Watts said. “We will continue to work with them and try to develop that in the best way that it can contribute to the welfare of the whole county.”

Even though there’s not a lot of exchange between the businesses on the property, it lends itself perfectly to the businesses that are there. For instance, the former East Columbia High School has three wings that are now being utilized. One wing is now home to the Columbia Law Enforcement Training Academy, another is being used as an industrial building and the third is the Community Room, where numerous events are held throughout the year, including meetings, banquets and the monthly Catchy Fridays hosted by the Marion County Development Partnership.

“We had run out of space for everyone at our office, topping out around 45 people per session. Now we have the ability to triple that number and still have room to grow,” explained Watts.

Clint McMurry, owner of the law enforcement academy, said, “We started in 2015 and have graduated seven classes now. We have people from out of state that come here and train and all of the money stays right here in our county. We started out in one room, but the county has been very generous and helpful. Since then we have renovated this entire wing and lease it and Jacobs Cottage for the barracks. We truly have it made here. We can do all our training except for firearms, and we are never in the public’s way and vice versa.

“There are so many people that use this campus to run, walk and ride bikes, and we as business owners welcome that. The Marion County Sheriff’s Department and Columbia Police Department have regular patrols here. It’s a beautiful campus and a safe one.”

QAS, a security system company that has called Marion County home for many years, also has its office in the BusinessPlex. Owner JT Haynes said he loves the location and only sees great things in the property’s future.

“It’s a quiet, peaceful place to work, and there’s so many possibilities with the open land and some of the buildings that aren’t being used yet,” Haynes said. “It’s been fun watching it grow, and I’m excited to see its future.”

Marion County District 1 Supervisor Randy Dyess echoed the importance of getting the valuable land back from the state.

“The land acquisition from the state was a blessing. It opened up many business opportunities for Marion County,” he said. “We should continue to pursue other avenues for this property as well.”

Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell of the 15th Circuit Court of Mississippi was instrumental in getting the Marion County Drug Court moved to the BusinessPlex.

“The building we eyed at the front of campus was in bad repair, but we wanted that location because we love the people in Columbia and Marion County and this building is centrally located to the other five counties we serve,” Harrell said. “The Marion County Board of Supervisors has been incredible through the entire process. Fulltime we have eight employees and sometimes serve 250 people as well. We host a huge graduation for our candidates every year. This year it will be in Lamar County with United States Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith as our keynote speaker.”

The building the Drug Court now occupies was completely renovated by volunteers and it is now not only eye-catching but one of the first buildings visitors see when coming onto campus.

Ken Morgan, who represents Marion County in District 100 of the Mississippi House of Representatives, said he thinks the BusinessPlex “could be one of the best economic opportunities for the people in Marion County. The people of Columbia and Marion County have benefitted and will continue to benefit from this special property in the years to come.”

Watts predicted that the future for the BusinessPlex is going to be special.

“We have additional buildings that can still be filled as well as areas for light industry. We would target light industry due to the proximity to not only residential areas but other businesses as well,” she said. “I can truly envision a beautiful industrial complex that includes nature walks and a recreational area with the purpose of creating jobs and keeping them here. The economic activity will definitely benefit the entire county.”

Marion County first worked on bringing jobs to this property 102 years ago and continues to do the same all these decades later. Many times, history repeating itself is not necessarily a good thing, but for the people of Marion County this is one time where it is.