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Is Hattiesburg really a hub? Business says yes

Hub City emerging as center of regional economy

HATTIESBURG — In 1884, the Southern Railroad System was the first railroad carved through the thick pine forests that connected Meridian to New Orleans. In 1897, the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad linked Jackson to Gulfport. Both rail lines crossed in Hattiesburg.

At the turn of the century, when timberland sold for as little as 50 cents an acre, about a million board feet of lumber per day were shipped to markets throughout the world from Hattiesburg, which by then was appropriately nicknamed the Hub City.

Today, Hattiesburg is the center of an emerging South Mississippi/Gulf Coast regional economy for reasons other than transportation. It’s become a hub of education and health care and is renowned as a polymer cluster.

“Hattiesburg is a very dynamic community,” said Jay Moon, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). “We certainly see it as one of the fastest- growing and most economically diverse communities in the state. There’s a great public-private partnership going on that extends beyond Hattiesburg to the entire region because the business leaders don’t look at city lines and county lines. They look at, ‘Where’s my workforce going to come from? How are they going to get to work? How am I going to get raw materials in and finished products out?’ They work together very effectively in a cooperative manner on all those issues.”

Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the Hattiesburg area is considered a “hub” for at least two reasons.

“First, it is a hub because of its location between four major metropolitan areas — New Orleans, Mobile/Florida panhandle, Mississippi Gulf Coast and Jackson,” he said. “Hattiesburg is within two hours of each and is in a unique position to easily serve those four markets. The Hattiesburg MSA is also a hub in that it is the retail, cultural, medical, higher education and housing center for a growing market area.

Being a university town gives the community many assets and opportunities not shared by typical cities and counties in its population range. Being a popular and growing medium income retirement community only adds momentum to its dynamic economy.”

In addition to USM, William Carey College is located in Hattiesburg and Pearl River Community College and Jones County Community College are in close proximity.

“Every day, 12,000 kids come to campus, many of them from Picayune and the Coast who make the drive daily,” said David Duhon, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing and management in USM’s College of Business Administration.

The center of the polymer cluster, the Mississippi Polymer Institute, was directly responsible for helping businesses create 1,538 jobs in 1999 and for generating $36 million for the Mississippi economy, according to the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

“Polymer training in the Hattiesburg MSA begins in high school and continues at Pearl River Community College and USM and is strongly supported by area industries,” said Gray Swoope, president of the Hattiesburg Area Development Partnership.

With Forrest General Hospital and Wesley Medical Center, Hattiesburg has become a central focus point for health care.

“Over the years, the physicians and hospitals have really developed this area for health care and are continuing to do so,” said Dianne Reidy, CEO of Wesley Medical Center. “For example, we recently opened our heart care program, so there are two now in Hattiesburg.”

The Hattiesburg Clinic is the largest single private clinic in the state, said Duhon.

“The five or six physicians that formed it about 30 years ago saw the possibilities and potential from Hattiesburg’s central location — and they were right,” he said.

The Hub City is the state’s leader in the recruitment of retirees, with more than 650 retiree households since the Hometown Mississippi Retirement Program began tracking activity in 1995, when it was formed.

On the IT front, Hattiesburg is hot wired for high-speed Internet growth. Cincinnati, Ohio-based Convergys, recently named one of BusinessWeek magazine’s 100 best-performing technology companies in the world, based on revenue growth, total size, shareholder return and return on equity, has a location in Hattiesburg. AT&T Wireless recently awarded a two-year contract to Convergys to provide integrated contact center services for its fixed wireless digital broadband service.

“It’s a good example of how Hattiesburg is keeping pace with advanced technology,” Swoope said.

At Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg, sales are in excess of $300 per square foot, making it one of the top performing malls in Mississippi, said David Meadows, mall manager.

If the Kansas City Southern Rail Line is upgraded as planned, Hattiesburg may see its potential come full circle.

“We’ve been in talks with the state and the Port of Gulfport for several months about upgrading that line to handle double stack intermodal containers,” said Warren Erdman, vice president for corporate affairs for the Kansas City Southern Industries, parent company of Kansas City Southern Railway. “The goal is not necessarily the sale of that line. The goal is getting it upgraded. We’ve been in friendly discussions with the state about the best way to do that and there are a number of options under consideration.”

Moon said the MDA recently issued several requests for proposals (RFPs) to appraise the rail line and is evaluating operating models of other state-run short line railroads.

“In Texas and in the upper Midwest, a lot of innovative work has been done and we’re studying their models,” he said. “We want to study operating and maintenance budgets and look at liability issues, such as, ‘if there’s a chemical spill on a railroad the state owns, who’s liable?’ After we’ve done that, we’ll be in a better position. Then, maybe this fall, we’ll sit down with Kansas City to discuss the acquisition. Post-acquisition, we’d then be looking at the rehabilitation of the line to achieve double stack capability.”

The Mississippi Legislature approved $20 million for acquisition and $20 million for rehabilitation of the rail line, Moon said.

“The goal is to create a rail line that operates efficiently and effectively and offers double stack capabilities, a higher speed capability and a better product for the private sector to use on the 80-plus miles of track,” he said.

Swoope said talk of the potential deal has spurred stronger cooperative efforts between Gulf Coast and Pine Belt leaders.

Moon said, “The upgrading of Highway 49 and the rail opportunity we’re talking about gives Hattiesburg much better connectivity to the Coast, which then gives more opportunity to utilize the port system, plus tying into I-10 along the Coast. There are so many opportunities in that area. Business leaders in Hattiesburg are very focused and are working a very smart strategic plan and it’s been very effective for them.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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