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Community building on diverse economic base and solid school system

Pontotoc competing for jobs in global economy

PONTOTOC — Like other small towns in Mississippi, Pontotoc faces constant challenges dealing with upgrading infrastructure such as roads and wastewater treatment facilities. But, unlike many other municipalities its size, Pontotoc has a low unemployment rate, a diversified economic base and excellent schools. It also owns its own natural gas system.

Pontotoc, population about 5,000, is located 30 miles east of Oxford and 20 miles west of Tupelo at the intersection of Mississippi 6 and Mississippi 15. As Mayor William K. “Bill” Rutledge sees it, Pontotoc isn’t competing against Oxford, Tupelo and other north Mississippi cities for jobs and economic development.

“Right now competition isn’t town to town or state to state, but to keep our jobs in the U.S.,” Rutledge said. “The NAFTA decision has put the hurt on a lot of small towns. In some of our towns, production has gone to Mexico.”

Pontotoc hasn’t escaped NAFTA impacts. Federal Mogul, a local factory that produces springs and ball joints for automobiles, is moving the ball joint production to Mexico. About 90 jobs are being lost. However, Pontotoc is gaining new industry at the same time that will create even more jobs. Southern Motion is planning to employ 300 to 400 people at its new furniture plant.

Furniture production has a big impact in Pontotoc with six different companies already in place. Other manufacturers include Paslode Manufacturing, which makes staples, staple guns and brackets, and Taylor Made, which produces 10 million dozen golf balls per year.

The city is currently in the middle of annexation proceedings to expand the city two and half miles to the north, which would take in a number of industrial sites, an industrial park, and the recently completed Mill Creek School. The special needs school will house up to 60 children, and employ 108 people.

“We have a lot going on,” Rutledge says. “We are very blessed and don’t take it for granted. Our city and county schools are level five, the highest level of accreditation. That is a big economic development draw. We’re also just opened up a new Ag Center in Pontotoc. That’s going to be another big draw.”

There are a number of new restaurants in town, and a new convenience store and gas station is under construction. With all the activity, unemployment has ranged between 2.6% and 3.5%.

Rutledge believes the city will continue to grow, especially if the Mississippi Department of Transportation completes promises of four-laning access roads to Pontotoc.

“That is a major impact on industry to be able to ship their products out as soon as possible without traffic flow congestion,” Rutledge said. “Highway 6 is four-laned from Oxford to Pontotoc. There are plans to four-lane from Pontotoc to Lee County near Verona. Highway 15, the north-south corridor, is actually being four-laned around the Houston area. New Albany will get their’s next. It will be four-laned from Ripley to New Albany. It is very important for these small towns to have four-lane access roads in or near their towns.”

Another infrastructure issue is wastewater treatment. Pontotoc has been on a lagoon system for wastewater treatment for many years, and is now being required by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to upgrade treatment. The city is currently working on a feasibility study of the wastewater treatment system, and is also adding another water well and water storage tank to provide adequate supplies of water.

The city is also currently facing a legal challenge from Mississippi Valley Gas regarding the city’s natural gas supply company. In 1988 local and private legislation was passed allowing the Pontotoc gas system to serve all of Pontotoc County and half of Union County. Mississippi Valley Gas has been denied permission to serve a portion of eastern Pontotoc County.

The mayor believes the Pontotoc gas system is best for serving the present territory.

“We’re service-driven,” Rutledge said. “Any other utility company that comes in is going to be profit-driven. It is more important to us to provide service to a home than to have a big profit margin. Any profits from the system are plowed back into the system.”

Rick Wise, senior vice president and general counsel of Mississippi Valley Gas, said Mississippi Valley Gas made a request to the Public Service Commission (PSC) to serve the eastern portion of Pontotoc County. The PSC ruling against Mississippi Valley Gas was appealed to the Hinds County Chancery Court, which also ruled in favor of Pontotoc. Mississippi Valley Gas plans to appeal that decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“We think we are the more appropriate entity to serve the area since our rates are very substantially less than theirs,” Wise said. “Our rates are 20% to 30% lower than Pontotoc’s. There is also concern over the fact that Pontotoc claims to be exempt from Mississippi Public Service Commission regulations, but claims a monopoly over all of Pontotoc County which means people in the county have no protection from high rates or poor service.”

Mayor Rutledge said that profits from the Pontotoc gas system help fund the separate school system, the volunteer fire department and the parks and recreation system.

The city takes pride in its parks and recreation programs. More than 800 children are involved in summer activities such as Little League Baseball. The town has what the mayor boasts is “one of the bank fishing lakes in the state”, Howard Stafford Park, which has facilities for camping and picnicking.

The town also has the only workable post office museum in the country. An individual purchased the old post office, and then got a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to operate the post office with 1929 era furnishings. Besides having P.O. boxes for people downtown, the museum contains a number of interesting artifacts.

A number of different entities are involved in promoting a healthy economy in the Pontotoc area. The Economic and Community Development Association, which operates under the Pontotoc Chamber of Commerce, is made up of representatives from local industries, businesses, civic groups and government.

“We’re doing better than most small towns,” Rutledge said. “The city and county work together instead of in competition with each other. The city works closely with the board of supervisors on things like road and bridge repairs. One thing that brought the bond closer together is the countywide gas system.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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