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Flora sees flurry of commercial development activity

Stand back! It’s about to grow!

FLORA — Think of the town of Flora, and what generally comes to mind? A small town on the side of U.S. 49, home of the Mississippi Petrified Forest and not much else.

Well, it’s time to revisit the town. Flora and its surrounding environs, almost overnight, have suddenly become a hot bed of growth and development. How hot? Some pundits are predicting that Flora will be one of the fastest growing communities in the entire U.S. over the next 10 years or so.

“I’ve heard those predictions, and I don’t know how valid they are,” Flora Mayor Jw “Judge” Richardson said, long-time Flora resident and former justice court judge. “What I do know is we are growing, and we will continue to grow. The question is how fast, not if.”

While outsiders may be surprised by the level of activity, the folks in Flora have not only been expecting it but have been planning for it for a half-decade.

“For the past five years, we have been working with the Central Mississippi Planning District on a strategic plan that will take us through the year 2025,” said Chip Estes, a Flora native, director of the southeast region for Williams Energy and board member of the Madison County Economic Development Authority. “That plan includes everything — transportation, zoning, signage ordinances, land uses. I believe by the year 2005, you’ll see an incredible, well-thought out and well-planned community.”

Interestingly, Flora’s leaders have used several communities to borrow ideas from. One of those is Celebration, a Disney-built, planned community in Florida.

“The two communities are very similar,” Estes said. “The topography is the same. They even have a community lake at one end of town like we do. We got a lot of great ideas from there. It’s a great model.”

It’s fortunate that Flora has done its homework because there’s a definite hum in the air. Residential development is definitely on the rise. Two subdivisions, both located within a mile of the city limits, are being developed. One is selling large lots and homes valued between $200,000-$400,000, while another 300 acres of a total 360-acre area is also in the early stages of development.

But the biggest news is on the commercial development front. The U.S. 49 corridor both north and south of town is attracting numerous hungry developers.

“It’s almost like a boulder rolling down a hill — there’s a lot of momentum in development in and around Flora right now,” said Harris Callum, who just late last month took over the seat as president of the Flora Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re getting a lot of interest from fast food restaurants and other developers in the Highway 49 area. You really ought to come visit, because there’s so much going on I could talk all day.”

Development is indeed on a quick clip. New development includes an Exxon convenience store/Subway, a new Fred’s store with a drive-through pharmacy and numerous other retail establishments. And Richardson was recently contacted by a group interested in building a hotel.

The biggest news as far as retail development goes, however, is a new strip mall, the first of its kind ever in the history of the area. The mall, being developed by the same folks who built the Exxon/Subway, will be a 38,000-square-foot facility. Richardson estimated that the mall was within 60 days of being complete as of late February.

Industrial development is also seeing activity. Already boasting Kearny Park, an industrial park just outside of Flora, Richardson said a new, 150-acre industrial park is to be located on U.S. 49 north of Flora. The mayor said the proposal is currently going through the red tape process, but if approved will be a huge asset to the community and attractive to industrial concerns, especially its location on U.S. 49 and the Illinois Central Railroad.

Inside the city limits, the historic Flora train depot is getting a facelift. After five years and three mayors, a $219,000-renovation is underway that will convert the depot into a visitors center, as well as a new home for the chamber of commerce, which is planning on using its new space to add more services to the local business community.

Another new happening that will aid organizations in doing business in the Flora area is new, state-of-the art Internet access. The wireless system, called Air2Lan, will offer broadband, high-speed access (20 times faster than standard dial-up) and provide service to the area that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive via traditional methods of Internet build-in. Flora is the first market in Mississippi to have the new system implemented.

According to James Smith, president of Ayrix Technologies, a Jackson-based Internet service provider which is conducting the test, the new service will be officially implemented around the middle of this month.

While all of this fast-paced activity is significant, all the leaders interviewed for this story said the same thing — it’s about quality, not quantity.

“We are focused on controlled growth,” Estes said. “Who cares if you’re the fastest-growing community. We’re more concerned with quality of life.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

About Wally Northway

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