Jobs more important than vote for prison case

Published 9:06 am Sunday, March 25, 2007

Several months ago, a friend close to state officials helping private prison developers said, “We were told it’s yours to lose.”

Apparently, state developers brought one of the companies to Natchez and said, essentially, “Here you go.”

In the weeks following, what seemed like a simple thing that could bring lots of jobs and tax benefits to the area became complicated.

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One of the two prison groups, Corrections Corporation of America, apparently rebuffed by our community leaders’ lack of enthusiasm (before the issue was made public) headed to McComb to seek an alternative site.

Fortunately, the McComb site has sparked controversy there. Pike County residents have forced the issue to an April 17 vote.

As the McComb process began hitting snags, the Adams County options looked better again as interest had increased.

CCA has said it will build the facility regardless of whether or not it wins a federal contract. The other company, the GEO Group, says it will only build if it wins the contract.

Both of these companies are huge corporations that deal strictly in business decisions.

Both groups came to the table seeking three things: A capable workforce, acceptance from the community and a deal that can fit their timeline.

Pretty much any community can provide the workforce and the timeline requirements, though those are coming down to the wire.

CCA, for example, seeks to begin construction by July 1, so it can meet the deadline for securing tax benefits through the federal Gulf Opportunity Zone legislation.

Because Adams County hesitated on the issue, now the CCA option for our county is in the hands of Pike County voters.

If the McComb measure passes by a landslide, the CCA prison will almost certainly go there.

If it is defeated, or passes only by a slim margin, Adams County still has a chance, but likely only if we choose not to vote.

That’s where the timing comes into play. In the middle of all of the hubbub here and in McComb, CCA has considered a third option — Walthall County, considered less likely to fuss.

Exactly one week after the McComb election, a deadline for organizers of an Adams County petition hits.

Organizers of the Adams County petition publicly have said they don’t view support of the petition as a vote against the prison.

Petition pushers say the matter is just exercising their right to vote on the matter. And that’s normally a good thing. In this case, it isn’t.

In this case, the county would be better served if the petition plans were simply dropped immediately.

The prison issue is a business decision. If everything works for them, they’ll come here. If it doesn’t, they’ll find another community.

But the prison issue is also a business decision for Natchez-Adams County, too, and sometimes business decisions require decisiveness.

Adams County Water Association and the Natchez Water Works reportedly each stand to earn between $150,000 and $200,000 annually for providing water and sewage service to the facility, if it were built.

And that’s not considering other potential economic impacts, either.

Hobo Fork Grocery owner Jeff Webb said his business has increased recently, something he attributes at least in part to the activity at the proposed CCA site on U.S. 84.

“My business has been up,” he said, pointing out that preliminary survey work at the site has increased customer traffic. “Personally, it’s going to benefit me (if it comes).”

Webb said from what he can tell, most of his patrons have expressed support for the prison.

“The majority of the people I’m talking to are not actually against it,” he said. “Maybe they’re not just voicing it to me.

“The only thing Natchez has to offer is a hunger for jobs and a cooperative attitude for anything that’s going to come here and bring jobs,” Webb said.

Well said. Is anyone listening? The deal is still, at least partially, ours to lose.

Kevin Cooper is associate publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or