Our future may be down the tracksPublished 12:02am Sunday, August 21, 2011
Southwest Mississippi may soon have an opportunity, the once-in-a-lifetime variety, at its fingertips.
The key will be keeping eyes on the future and, literally, not running off the rails.
Our community needs to be “driving with our high beams on” — looking just beyond what we can clearly see coming down the tracks.
That kind of vision is critical as members of the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority gear up to fight over the county’s lone railroad line.
Most local residents know the railroad’s background.
A firm with ties to a large railroad salvage company purchased the line two years ago. Although the company has said publicly that they have no intention of scrapping the line, their actions beg to differ.
The belief among many close to the situation is that the company’s goal is to drive away business with high prices, then petition to scrap it, making a hefty, quick profit.
In fact, Elevance Renewable Sciences’ contract to bring 150 new jobs to the area contains wording to seek help from Natchez Inc. and others to free up the stranglehold of the current railroad owners
To that end, Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties formed the railroad authority earlier this year.
The new entity aims to resolve the issue either by working with the railroad owner to obtain more reasonable rates — which seems improbable — or by encouraging the Surface Transportation Board to force the sale of the railroad to someone with serious intent on operating it, not scrapping it.
The authority likely will soon take up the fight in a more formal, legal manner.
As it does, a couple of things need to be considered.
First, despite what the community’s perpetual naysayers will bark, the authority purchasing the railroad is not a crazy idea, and taxpayers would not be in jeopardy if they did.
Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said recently if such a purchase were to come to fruition, none of the counties who appointed members to the authority would be on the hook.
County taxpayers would be at no risk of absorbing the debt if the railroad were purchased and later went belly up.
Second, our region would be much better off if we actually owned the railroad, particularly if the railroad’s profitability can be increased.
Having the profits of the railroad stay in our region is much better for the area’s long-term growth than having profits funneled out-of-town.
It’s quite feasible for the railroad to become a huge cash generator, perhaps even capable of fully funding economic development entities in Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties.
For an example of what can be done by wisely planting and fostering an opportunistic seed, look no further than the opposite corner of our state.
Tupelo’s success has been, in no small part, due to a generous gift of a profitable business to a community foundation years ago.
Could a profitable railroad, owned by the communities it serves, be the seed from which our community’s future grows?
In addition, think about how useful it would be for economic developers to have railroad pricing power in their toolkit.
If the railroad can be purchased and made profitable, our community should have the vision to purchase it and dedicate profits to be reinvested in Southwest Mississippi.
Do that, and our future could be as powerful and as unstoppable as a locomotive.
Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.