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Yazoo City improves odds with better schools, housing

YAZOO CITY — When the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Yazoo City opened in 1996, about half of the 300 employees moved from various places across the U.S. to make Yazoo City and Yazoo County their home. The other half, which consisted of approximately 150 employees, was comprised of local hires.

While the ratio is about what any employer could expect to see in terms of local vs. non-local hires, city and county officials are hoping for something a little better when the second federal correctional institution, a medium security correctional institution, opens in the county in 2003, said Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Jerry Fraiser. County and city officials are improving the odds that will happen by building better schools and offering more housing choices.

Before the first correctional institution opened in Yazoo County in 1996, Louis Berger & Associates Inc. of Washington, D.C., completed Yazoo’s own Housing Needs and Assessment Survey. The company interviewed FCI employees about price range, size and number of bedrooms and bathrooms wanted in a house. They found that there was a need for more housing in the area as well as better schools.

Although the survey should have provided some incentive to area developers and city and county officials to build more houses and better schools, it did not. When the flurry of FCI employees began to show up in 1996 and building finally began. it turned out to be a day late and a dollar short. The result was that the half of the FCI employees who were not local hires moved to such cities as Clinton, Madison and Jackson.

Yazoo City and county officials are trying to get it right the second time.

“You always learn from past experiences,” Fraiser said. “Now we’re starting to have housing come on the market as their scheduled arrivals get here.”

Griffin Norquist, chairman of the Yazoo Greater Growth Foundation and president and CEO of the Bank of Yazoo City, said the goal this time is to provide housing that better reflects the needs of prison employees, and to provide it before they start to work. But, he said, it is the schools that must meet the needs of the employees before anything else is addressed.

Yazoo City and county officials agreed with that, and in the last six years the county schools have made some tremendous progress in academic areas as indicated by a consistent increase in students’ achievement test scores, according to county school superintendent Buddy Smith.

But, said Smith, “I’ve found people coming in don’t necessarily look just at test scores. They also look at facilities.”

At the prompting of FCI and other business and industry officials as well as city and county officials, a new county high school was built six years ago, and the county recently undertook a $10-million renovation program for the county’s two elementary schools. A new building that will house the county’s kindergarten and administrative offices is also under construction, as is a new junior high.

Yazoo City is also making strides in education. It will open its new elementary school this fall.

“If the schools meet the needs of the people, they’re going to move in here,” Norquist said.

Smith agreed and said, “I believe that without having a strong public education in place our chances of viable economic growth are greatly diminished. That has to be in place before you can look for serious recruitment of manufacturing, service companies, etc. When people come into a community I think they look at the education, housing and the quality of life available in a community. If any one of those factors aren’t there, they’re probably going to go someplace where they feel more comfortable.”

Mayor Wardell Leach echoed the sentiments of both Norquist and Smith.

“Housing, recreational facilities and things like that will fall in line, but education has to be a priority,” Leach said. “I think we’re making strides in education and we believe our educational systems will get to the point where they will continue to bring their children in and let them be a part of our system.”

Arthur Truex, acting public information officer at FCI, said, “Obviously the community would like to see more people stay locally. Of course that way the money stays here in the community. They’d like to see that happen.”

Truex said he has seen the city and county schools improve by leaps and bounds. It is the housing situation he is now waiting to see improve.

“That’s yet to be seen, but with the talk of a developer coming in and establishing a subdivision, that’s one thing the community is going to need to hold on to the people who come to work here and to live in a community,” Truex said. “Do I have faith that’s going to happen? Yes I do. But I can’t give you figures on the numbers of homes or who the developer is. That’s still being worked out.”

In the future, Truex hopes the Community Relations Board (CRB) will provide more insight as to what is needed by FCI and by other industry being recruited to the area. The CRB, which was established when Warden Khurshid Yusuff joined the FCI staff, meets monthly and includes Truex, Leach, the Yazoo City chief of police, the head of the Yazoo County Head Start and a member of the local business community.

“Part of what we do is educate the city officials and business community about a wide variety of issues in the prison system,” Truex said. “But many times we talk about the upcoming medium security prison being built and what the community can do for upcoming families that will move here.”

Leach said Yazoo City and Yazoo County have come to the realization that things have to be in place before new industry can be attracted.

“We’re constantly trying to improve,” Leach said. “We hope we’ve put ourselves in line to be competitive.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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