A Mississippi city has one of the strongest economies in the country. How did they do it?

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Mississippi’s Millennial Brain Drain

A vital Coast economy depends on convincing young people to settle here. This Sun Herald series documents and examines “brain drain” and what is being done to combat it.

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One creative couple helped change a Mississippi town.

Husband and wife Kagan Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren moved in 2006 from Washington D.C. to Water Valley, Mississippi. Since then Coughlin, 37, has renovated six historic buildings downtown and van Beuren has opened a grocery store and restaurant in one of them.

“The impact on the town as a whole has been pretty significant,” Coughlin said. “It gives people the confidence to take risks themselves.”

Once he finished renovating buildings, Coughlin and a former business colleague found sponsors for their idea to create Base Camp Coding Academy, where students just out of high school are trained over 12 months, without charge, to work as software developers. The employment rate at graduation is 100 percent employment and starting pay is around $50,000 a year, Coughlin said.

Coding academies are now taking hold across the state through community college programs.

Coughlin and van Beuren’s odyssey illustrates the momentum that individuals, entrepreneurs and small businesses can spark in the state’s economy.

Several people involved with economic development said Mississippi has long emphasized industrial recruitment but needs to do more in the new economy to support entrepreneurs and small businesses.

For example, state incentives for Continental Tire, a German company, total $600 million or more for a plant near Jackson that will employ 2,500, according to an Associated Press analysis.

“We have historically devoted a considerable amount of our time, money and resources on recruiting companies to Mississippi,” said Matthew McLaughlin, an attorney who works with business clients on economic development. “The value doesn’t end up staying here. It ends up in the hands of the shareholders or the companies that are located outside Mississippi.

“I believe if you look at the return on investment over the long term, the return doesn’t match the investment.”

‘People are the economy’

Ashby Foote of the nonprofit Bigger Pie Forum in Jackson labels as “crony capitalism” the government assistance Mississippi has offered to lure out-of-state businesses to Mississippi. More than one of those businesses had failed spectacularly, costing the state $185 million over 10 years, a state auditor’s report concluded in April 2018.

“I think crony capitalism is a symptom of a top down view of the economic system, as if people at the top, particularly government people at the top, can make the decision on how to invest the state’s capital,” said Foote, president of Vector Money Management investment firm and a Jackson city councilman. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of allocating capital.

“You’ve got investors out there who are always looking for an opportunity to invest. I think the best approach is to limit regulation. Be business-friendly by having less regulations that interfere with business startups and champion the smaller businesses.”

McLaughlin and a successful economic developer in Oxford say industrial recruitment has its place, but Mississippi needs to focus more money and effort on small business and the entrepreneurial economy, as other successful southern cities such as Nashville and Little Rock have done.

Economic development and industrial recruitment, the traditional model, is not a bad model,” said Jon Maynard, CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette Economic Development Foundation. “It serves a purpose. The problems that we run into are that we lose sight of being holistic in what we do for economic development.”

Oxford has one of the strongest economies of any small metropolitan area in the country, ranking ninth out of 551 micropolitan areas in an annual study by Policom Corp. that synthesizes 23 economic indicators.

How did this university town with a population of about 23,000 do it?

“The trick to the economy in Oxford is that we are very holistic in what we do,” Maynard said.

“We foster people-based economic development, simply because we find that to be a more sustainable model for what we’re trying to get done. People are the economy.”

The economic development foundation formed in 1992 and decided — rather than going after a big industry or company — that it would focus on a more achievable goal: creating an environment where the members would be happy to live. They wanted to attract retirees to Oxford, too.

The city focused on design standards for streets and other public areas, creating a walkable community, offering amenities such as high-speed internet. The strategy worked and is more applicable now than ever.

“What we did unknowingly back in 1992 was to create an environment that was attractive to the 21st Century workforce,” Maynard said.

Oxford has a diverse economy, with major manufacturers including SMW Manufacturing and the Winchester Division of Olin Manufacturing.

A four-year university, which the Missisissippi Coast has long sought, adds a considerable talent and resource base. Four professors from Oxford started FNC Inc., a leader in computer technology for the mortgage industry. The business sold in late 2015 for $475 million.

A small-town revolution

Kagan Coughlin, working as a financial analyst, was at a conference in California when he met one of FNC’s founders. Coughlin and Alexe van Beuren were ready for a slower pace. At FNC’s invitation, they visited Oxford several times, finding the community charming.

“The fact that I was leaving D.C. to go to work at a software company in Mississippi was shocking to many of the folks I knew,” Coughlin said.

The couple settled in nearby Water Valley, population under 4,000.

“It was a quiet break from the city that my wife and I were hoping for,” he said. “We found ourselves in a little town full of really lovely people.”

Houses were cheap, which also attracted a university professor and her husband to Water Valley. The couple was in the process of renovating one of the many abandoned buildings downtown for an art gallery.

Coughlin also decided to buy one of the downtown buildings, only a block from the couple’s house. He worked on renovations nights and weekends.

“The frustrations of corporate and financial America really fall away when you pick up a sledgehammer and start fixing up an old building,” he said.

When the first floor was complete, van Beuren opened a farmer’s market, which eventually turned into one of Water Valley’s biggest draws, for locals and tourists alike: The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery, complete with a restaurant run by business partner Dixie Grimes and an emphasis on fresh, locally grown ingredients.

By 2012, Coughlin felt he had accomplished what he needed to as head of product management for FNC. By then he and van Beuren had two children. He was traveling a lot for work. He sat down with the company’s leadership and told them he was ready to move on.

Coughlin traveled the country for six months, looking for the next place he and his family would settle. When he got back home, his wife had basically made a deal to buy an old abandoned farm they had been eyeing for six years.

“When I got home, I suddenly had a town I liked more than anywhere else I had been, and I had this lovely project,” he said. “My wife knows me quite well. I’m fairly confident she wanted to stay.”

Water Valley revitalization came to America’s attention in March 2012, when The New York Times published a story on van Beuren and three friends who had worked to revive a “derelict Mississippi town.”

But Coughlin and van Beuren were just getting started. A banker approached him about buying five more empty buildings, one on the verge of collapse. Coughlin took up the challenge, borrowing from the bank for the renovations. Today, the buildings are covering mortgages and insurance.

“They should not have loaned me that money,” Coughlin says now. “The risk they took, I’m not sure how they explained it to the auditors.”

Coughlin and one of his former bosses at FNC, Glen Evans, met occasionally for dinner. They were talking on one of these occasions about the shortage of technology workers and the young people they saw out of work and with families two years out of high school. They hit on a solution for both problems: a coding camp.

They signed on businesses and philanthropists as sponsors, and found two talented teachers.

“Everywhere we went,” Coughlin recalls, “people said, ‘Yes,’ and wrote us a check.”

The first class graduated in 2017 from Base Camp Coding Academy, where the third class is now attending. Demand is high for the graduate technology workers.

The school is “scaling up,” Coughlin said, to 25 graduates per year. The city has donated an old sewing factory, empty for 20 years, as the academy’s next home.

Coughlin and van Beuren epitomize what Maynard means by “people-based economic development.”

They love their community. Van Beuren has gotten involved with the schools, helping install a garden where she volunteers once a week to teach students about agricultural science. The couple also helped revive the long-dormant Parent Teacher Organization.

And Coughlin is serving on the Water Valley Board of Aldermen.

“It’s something I love about Mississippi,” he said. “You can do anything you want to do if you’re willing to do it. I haven’t run into any resistance to any idea I’ve wanted to try.”

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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