GULFPORT AND BILOXI — Harrison County’s economy thus far in 2001 is a mixed bag. For the first six months of the year, retail sales are down slightly, residential building is off about 17%, but commercial building is up 77% compared to the first six months of 2000.
Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC), said residential building has been going down for the past couple of years after significant increases in 1998 and 1999.
A bright spot is the 77% increase in commercial building permits especially since that doesn’t represent one major development like the Crossroads Mall that opened in 1998. Instead, the county is seeing widespread, smaller commercial developments.
“The commercial building activity is disbursed all over the place,” Olivier said. “It is broad based, everything from offices and warehouses to small retail developments.”
Harrison County has seen $77 million in new commercial building permits in the first six months of 2001 compared to $44 million for the same period in 2000 and $78 million for the same period in 1999.
Retail sales for the six months period for the entire Coast decreased 2% from $2.4 billion in 2001 compared to $2.43 billion in 2000.
“What we are continuing to see is a fairly strong level of consumer confidence,” Olivier said. “What is important to note is that automobile registrations are continuing upward growth. They are 2% higher than last year, and last year were up 3%.”
Olivier said the upward trend would be even higher but many people who live in Mississippi buy tags in neighboring Louisiana or Alabama, which have much less expensive car tags. Even with that, there has been a consistent increase in automobile registrations for the past decade.
Gaming is a big player in Harrison County’s economic picture. All but one of the Coast casinos is located in Harrison County. Gaming revenue for the Coast in the first two quarters of 2001 has increased by 3% over the same period in 2000.
Chuck Patton, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said the Coast casinos are holding their own.
“I don’t think they are doing as well as they would like,” Patton said. “The economy has hurt them. But I think they are doing pretty well, all things considered.”
Coast casino growth has been higher than that seen with Mississippi river casinos. Patton said the Coast casinos have more to offer in terms of non-gaming amenities.
“And that’s why I think they are doing comparatively better,” he said.
On the manufacturing front, the HCDC has been working on a cluster concept to bring in suppliers and vendors to the Oreck vacuum cleaner plant in Long Beach. Olivier said potential operations could include metal stamping, plastic molding injection, small motor production, and suppliers for line cord suppliers, bag filters, detergent suppliers and small motors.
The county has a $416,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Mississippi Development Authority to pay for infrastructure development including an access road to the site, and water lines and sewer lines for the anticipated 100,000 square feet of buildings that would be co-shared by a number of companies. An estimated 250 to 400 jobs would be created by the Oreck suppliers and vendors.
Currently the HCDC has a commitment from one vendor. Potential vendors and manufacturers would have Oreck as an anchor, but would likely also do business with other companies. An advantage to Oreck would be having just-in-time inventory available.
The HCDC also continues efforts to develop a new industrial park somewhere in the county, and is in the process of identifying a minimum of three sites north of Interstate 10 that will be investigated further. There aren’t current funds to develop the site, but Olivier said if the site isn’t purchased now, the county won’t be able to afford it later. After the site is purchased it will be warehoused until there is demand for it, which is expected later in the decade.
Two gaming-related manufacturers in Harrison County have recently moved into new facilities. International Gaming Technology (IGT) recently moved into a new facility in Intraplex 10, which is located at the Bernard Bayou Industrial District. IGT assembles slot machines, and does service and repair. IGT entered into a lease contract with Southern Development of MS Inc. for a design-build building that is 20,000 square feet in size and cost about $1.5 million. IGT, which expanded to meet business growth demands and warehouse needs, has a staff of 40 employees working in the Gulfport office.
Mikohn Gaming, which manufactures signs used in casinos, recently moved into a new facility on Lorraine Road. Gordon Fields, production manager and Southeast U.S. service manager for Mikohn, said the company manufactures slot signage for the casino industry, and does service and repair. Besides serving the Coast casinos, the operation in Gulfport also serves casinos on cruise ships, elsewhere in the Southeast and in the Caribbean.
The signs, which generally cost between $4,000 and $20,000 with some signs running as high as $100,000, are used to attract players to slot machines, especially those with metered jackpots. Metered jackpot slot machines are popular, Fields said, because “people want to hit the big one.”
Other new activity in Harrison County includes a $500,000 addition to the Gulf Coast Business Technology Center. Executive director Adele Lyons said there are 9,600 square feet of warehouse and office space. There will be eight new 800-square-foot warehouse bays with small offices attached.
“For the past five or six years we have seen our warehouse space be very popular, and we found the thing most people wanted was the smaller spaces,” Lyons said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.