Batesville and Panola County are poised to move near the front of the line of areas in the North Mississippi/West Tennessee region offering workforce training combined with traditional college opportunities if a campus of Northwest Mississippi Community College can be established here as local officials hope.
Although the plan to purchase the Batesville Outlet Mall and convert it for use as a campus branch of Northwest is still in its infancy, the idea has grown from informal talks over the years to a viable project both the Batesville Mayor and Board of Aldermen and the Panola County Board of Supervisors have committed funds to, and said they intend to spend more.
“Right now, the city and the county are trying to purchase the whole building and land for about $2.6 million. The attorneys are trying to figure out a way the city and county can purchase it together. That’s got to happen first,” said Mayor Jerry Autrey.
Panola County Board of Supervisors attorney Gaines Baker has written for an Attorney General’s opinion laying out the details of the proposed purchase. County and city governments in other areas have made similar purchases for education projects without legal problems.
Spearheading this effort over the past year has been the Panola Partnership, and its CEO Joe Azar, on behalf of the aldermen and supervisors. Azar has quietly built a coalition of local elected officials and state lawmakers to help secure funding for the project, all the while courting the interest of factories here and in neighboring counties to also commit their future support of a Northwest campus.
In early 2018, Panola Partnership formed a committee comprised of Supervisor President Cole Flint, Batesville Alderman at Large Teddy Morrow, City and Partnership Engineer Blake Mendrop, Attorney Ryan Revere, and Meredith Fleming. Along with Azar and others from the business community, their efforts to locate a branch of Northwest in Batesville was greatly boosted with Dr. Michael Heindl was named president of the Senatobia-based community college last year.
Heindl, a young and energetic administrator, agreed with locals that Batesville is a prime spot for a Northwest branch, especially with the plans to have the addition focused on workforce training. The idea is to convert the mostly-empty Outlet Mall to a branch of the college that would offer on-site and hands-on training specifically designed by area industries.
Heindl released a statement about the project this week: ”We at Northwest Mississippi Community College are excited about the opportunity to continue our strong partnership with Panola County, the City of Batesville, business and industry, and Panola Partnership with the potential to provide more workforce training to the citizens of the county and the region. Preliminary conversations have yielded the need for new college programs with courses in construction trades, diesel technology, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, engineering and industrial technology, and other training programs sought by our industry partners. The potential is great, and we look forward to continuing our work together in 2019 and beyond.”
Supervisor Cole Flint said he recognized early that job training equates to job recruitment. “If you have a trained workforce, the people with industries will come here,” he said.
Flint said he saw an opportunity when Heindl was named Northwest president. “The day they announced his hiring I asked if he would stop in Batesville on his way home from Senatobia. I met him in the parking lot of the mall that night and asked him if Northwest would want to put something here. He was on board from the start and things began to roll then.”
The idea is to remodel the existing building so area industries could install the same machinery used on production lines at their facilities and train workers off-site. The plan, officials say, would provide plant managers with trained workers from their first day of employment. The potential for increased production, better quality, less worker turnover, and ultimately, greater profits, is limitless.
South Panola and North Panola School Districts have made significant investments into their Career and Technical Education programs to become a pipeline for this facility and the area’s workforce. Northwest would operate the Concourse with participation from areas manufacturers, who hope to increase their production capabilities with a ready trained workforce, especially if that pool of workers is coming from a college setting.
A delegation of local leaders is planning a trip to Washington, D.C., where they hope to meet with lawmakers and department officials in an effort to secure federal dollars for the project. In the meantime, a major push will be made at the state level for the passage of legislation necessary to bring the proposed campus closer to a reality. All of the state legislators representing Panola County are on board with this project. After briefings, the team has been able to secure support from all our federal delegation.
“The Partnership has hired a government affairs consultant to seek all available funds needed to move this project forward,” Autrey said. With a price tag that is expected to reach $15-20 million, Autrey and other officials are aware that securing funds for the initial outlay are vital to moving ahead with actual renovations.
“This is a gamechanger for Batesville,” Autrey said. “Right now, we have a nearly empty mall that looks terrible. As we get it going, we hope to have a small hotel in the front and a place to have small events and meetings there too.”
The proposed Concourse facility has already received on major donation with a pledge from Batesville philanthropist Robert Dunlap. Parking lots and other auxiliary structures for the satellite campus will be built on land west and north of the mall owned by Dunlap.
“Immediately, this NWCC Concourse Campus will become our state’s showcase training center, located directly on Interstate-55 and State Highway 278 with over 30,000 vehicles combined passing per day. This facility’s exposure will aid in perpetual grant opportunities for cutting-edge training as it will become a major talking point for all of Mississippi to use – not only our Panola County region. We have to make this a reality!” stated Joe Azar.