By Errol Castens
OXFORD – After nearly 25 years that have seen a never-ending variety of successes, disappointments and more successes, Max Hipp will retire at year’s end as head of Oxford’s twin business-boosting organizations.
Hipp, a native Oxonian, is the executive director of the Oxford-Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation.
He returned to Oxford from heading economic development in Greensboro, N.C., and quickly discovered business recruitment and support had not been given a high priority in the Oxford-Lafayette community.
“The disparity was humongous,” he said. “Down on the Coast (economic development spending) was something like $8 per capita, and goodness knows what Tupelo’s was. Ours was something like 29 cents per capita.”
Once that problem was eased with city, county and private support, the Chamber added new focuses, starting with a retiree attraction program that has also boosted tourism and has made Oxford a darling of national media from TV news to lifestyle publications.
“I sensed from the early 1990s that we were getting looked at by different people from the outside,” Hipp said. “This guy who heads ‘Where to Retire’ started writing about us, and from that point on it’s gone beyond what you’d ever have imagined.”
Industrial recruitment and retention have provided some of Hipp’s most satisfying – and gut-wrenching – experiences.
At one point in the early 2000s the area lost nearly 1,000 manufacturing jobs in quick succession with Toro’s and downsizings at Oxford Wire and Cable, Georgia Pacific and Whirlpool, adding to the loss of Emerson Electric.
“We had a tremendous fiasco on our hands,” Hipp said.
But even then, not all the news was bad. Whirlpool was looking to redesign their cooking products line. When the city, county, and U.S. Forest Service cooperated to build new access to the Whirlpool plant, Hipp said, “Out of that they grew from about 400 jobs to 1,200 in no time.”
Whirlpool’s expansion, however, lasted only a few years before the company shut the plant.
Meanwhile, there was Winchester. The ammunition manufacturer took over the old Emerson building, bringing several hundred jobs with its Rimfire operation and adding another few dozen when the Military Packing division also moved to Oxford.
In 2010, the company moved its Centerfire operation from Alton, Ill., to Oxford to serve soaring demand for ammo, adding several hundred more jobs.
“The state and county did so much. Everybody pitched in,” Hipp said. “Now Winchester is up over 1,000 employees there and have another 300 or 400 to go. They’re still hiring.”
Hipp sees health care and information-sector businesses as “the wave of the future” for Oxford. Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. is building a new hospital, and FNC, a homegrown company servicing the real estate industry, will soon build a second structure to house its high-tech employees.
“The FNC presence is much bigger than people realize,” he said. “The hospital’s going to be a huge thing.”
Both health care and high-tech, Hipp predicted, will be added to by the entrepreneurs he sees flocking to Oxford, attracted by both its quality of life and its pro-business culture.
“It only takes a few visionaries, and word gets around,” he said. “That kind of thing multiplies itself.”
Hipp said in retirement he’ll do some consulting and some volunteer work. While he and his wife, Barbara, may travel more, the same community qualities that he’s touted for 25 years will keep them living in Lafayette County.
“It doesn’t take long for people to love this place,” he said.