Student graduates of Base Camp, Facebook representatives, community members, and others attend the groundbreaking of Everest, a tech and innovation hub in Water Valley on Jan. 23, 2020

WATER VALLEY — An old, historic manufacturing clothing facility what city leaders called the “heartbeat” of the community here flatlined over 30 years ago. Now, with an investment of $4.7 million, the building is getting an economic lifeline to transform its 64,000 square footage into Mississippi’s first rural education and innovation hub and incubator for high school graduates, startup businesses, and corporate sponsors.

What was formerly known as Water Valley Manufacturing Inc., the “economic hub” and symbol of the decline of the garment industry, is now reborn as Everest, a technology and education center, co-founders of Base Camp Coding Academy announced recently at a groundbreaking event.   

Financed with federal and state historic tax credits, new market tax credits, grants, and private donations, Everest will be home to the coding academy and Northwest Mississippi Community College programs. As a partner, the community college shared the expense of an instructor to teach workforce development courses for Base Camp students and allowed students to receive college credit.

With Everest, Northwest will extend its work to offer adult education and workforce development programs as well as dual enrollment for the students.

“…This building boomed through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and fell into misuse as the  manufacturing garment factory industry moved overseas. It’s been unused for almost 30 years now,” said Glen Evans, co-founder of Base Camp. “Now fast forward, it’s going to come back to life as a tech center hub for new industry based on the new economy, not the old economy.”

Founded in 2016 by Evans and Kagan Coughlin, Base Camp is a nonprofit that provides “under-advantaged” high school graduates with training in computer programming and coding. The cost of the year-long program is around $15,000 but students receive scholarships. The program has served over 40 students who are now working for companies such as FedEx and C Spire. 

The program is challenging to get into and complete, founders say.

Facebook representatives meet with Base Camp Coding Academy executive director, at the center on Jan 23. 2020

Teachers, advisers, guidance counselors and small business owners nominate students to join the program. After nominations, students complete an application process and take an aptitude test. Applicants must participate in two interview sessions. If chosen, in June, students begin class sessions for 40 hours a week with a class of a little more than 20 students.

Each quarter students receive evaluations from board members on three principles: community, professionalism, and technical ability. If they get clearance, they go on to complete the program and then graduate.

“You can’t miss days. The curriculum moves so quickly. At the end of the year, we turn to FedEx or C Spire and say, ‘This isn’t a kid. They just did a full year of work experience. Here’s their performance’,” Coughlin said.

With the opening of Everest, cohorts will increase by 10 to 15 students.

The founders wanted to fill a gap in the tech industry for regional employers, but it was a tug of war getting buy-in from local and state leaders and the community, initially. But now, the mindset has shifted and there’s been more talk of a technology workforce, said Coughlin. 

“When we said software development and coding, it was a blank face. If we talked to an executive at a company, they knew it instantly because they were constantly trying to find the talent,” Coughlin said. “All the people who were thinking workforce development or education, this wasn’t on the radar and I would say has shifted from every level across the state in the last four years.”

In a town with a little more than 3,000 people, the largest industries are manufacturing, education, and health care, like most rural towns. And the median household income here in Water Valley – located 25 miles south of Oxford – is around $38,000, according to Census Reporter.

“I think we’re all firm believers in just proving a concept. …The first three years of Base Camp was simply just that. Let’s give this a try. Let’s report every metric we can then we’ll reconvene in three years and it’ll be clear either it’s worth doing or continuing to do or it’s not,” Cagan said. 

“Soon as you see a dozen kids step out of rural Mississippi and they’re earning $50,000 at 19 (years-old) with no student debt that news article is starting to be written, those parents and grandparents are saying ‘what?’”

Attendees at the ground breaking of Everest in Water Valley on Jan. 23, 2020.

As a result of the continued growth for the academy, Facebook through their Facebook for Education initiatives has pledged to provide scholarships for students for two consecutive years as their first investment in Mississippi.

“We hope those students come out and find technology jobs, computer science jobs and build their careers and become innovators of the future,” Chris Randle, manager of public policy for Facebook, said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say it was Congressman Bennie Thompson who is a champion for education and opportunity for this congressional district who said to technology companies including Facebook, you all need to invest in Mississippi.”

After the three-year pilot of the program, there was more “need” to repurpose the historic building, increase workforce and economic development, and provide opportunities for those in need, Evans added, when asked the purpose of the tech center.

He mentioned they will recruit business sponsors and create a co-working space for start-up businesses.

“Imagine the benefit of a prospective employer being across the hall from their future employees,” he added.

Water Valley Mayor Donald Gray agreed the economic, social, and physical components of this project is “going to be a great change” for the city.

“The physical part is going to make our city much better. The economic, I can’t even start to imagine. …Hopefully a lot of these students will come back and build houses and become taxpayers,” Gray said. “People can make a good living and these kids make a really good living starting out. They feel better about themselves … about their families.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.