WIGGINS – Driving between Hattiesburg and the Coast on U.S. 49, Wiggins used to be a “blink and you miss it” kind of town. There wasn`t even a stoplight to slow you down.
But now you can`t miss the growth of the county seat of Stone County, and what you see on U.S. 49 – including a new Wal-Mart Supercenter that necessitated the a stoplight on the highway – is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Stone County as a whole has experienced great population growth during the last decade,” said Russell Hatten, the former mayor of Wiggins who took over recently as executive director of the Stone County Economic Development Partnership. “According to the 2000 Census, Stone County had a growth of 27%. And that may have been undercounted.”
Hatten said residential growth of Stone County is a factor in economic development, but it is not the only factor.
“Nor is it the largest factor,” he said. “It certainly helps the business growth and tax base when you have more people spending their money in your local market.”
A large part of the population growth has been in the south part of Stone County, reflecting the area`s popularity with people who commute to jobs on the Coast. With Wiggins only 30 minutes away from Gulfport, and south Stone County even closer than that, a number of the new residents are commuting to work at Coast businesses while enjoying lower land and housing prices – and more space – than can be found in the Coast counties.
“A strong asset of Stone County is the reasonable cost and availability of land,” Hatten said. “Because of the mega International Paper (IP) land sale, large tracts of land are currently available. One would only have to deal with a single property owner to acquire these large tracts.”
When International Paper closed in Moss Point, the thousands of acres of land IP formerly managed to provide lumber for the mill were sold. That has opened a real estate bonanza in South Mississippi.
“We continue see an increase in the number of people moving here,” Hatten said. “Seems they want to get away from the congestion or whatever and want to live in a smaller community atmosphere where life may be a little more laid back. Another factor for this increase could be spurred by a very reasonable construction cost for homes. And, of course, some are moving here because of the job market just to our south.”
A second opportunity for growth is expansion of existing business and industry. Hatten said the county has seen several local industries expand during the past couple of years and there are good indications that some others will soon enlarge and expand with other products.
“Of course we are always looking in the direction of new business and industry,” he said. “Currently there are several new businesses in the process of locating here in Stone County. We have an excellent workforce, land, natural resources, location, and reasonable operating cost.
“Our people and workforce are strong assets. The people in Stone County have a good work ethic. They are educated in an excellent public school system and, if need be, can be trained for specific jobs and skills through our local community college. Of course, our location between several large metropolitan areas provides an even larger population for the selection of a workforce if needed.”
Natural resources in the area are also a big asset and attraction. Stone County is home to the state`s only Wild and Scenic River, Black Creek, and the popular Black Creek Trail.
“Discover the hidden beauty of the piney woods in the Gulf Coastal Plain by hiking one of Mississippi`s longest and most challenging trails,” says a review on Yahoo.com`s travel Web site. “The Black Creek Trail leads for 40 miles along Black Creek, from Fairley Bridge Landing to Big Creek Landing. The trail offers a challenging and exciting hike. It climbs over rolling hills and meanders down through the flat land of the Black Creek flood plain. Over 90 bridges have been constructed to provide crossing for small streams and ponds. A white vertical rectangle marks the trail. Approximately 10 miles of the trail are located in the Black Creek Wilderness.”
Hatten said tourism is becoming a more viable industry with businesses providing float trips, RV parks, golf courses, lodging and supplies for hunting, fishing and hiking.
Before serving as mayor, Hatten and his wife owned and operated several successful small businesses. Hatten also worked in education for a number of years.
While mayor, Hatten oversaw a rapid period of growth that saw 75 new businesses and a couple of larger industries attracted to the county.
“These new businesses, industries and expansions brought over 600 new jobs to Stone County and included our Wal-Mart Supercenter,” Hatten said. “This new business sector has added greatly to the tax base of our city and county as well as added much convenience for our citizens.”
The location of Stone County between two larger metropolitan areas, and a good transportation network are assets for residential and commercial growth.
“We have Highway 49 north to the south, and Highway 26 from east to west,” Hatten said. “These two highways are fast and close connectors to I-10, I-59, I-65 and I-55. New Orleans is 90 miles away, and Mobile 60 miles away. The Ports of Mobile, Pascagoula, Gulfport and New Orleans are all less than 100 miles away. Looking back at the map, there is also a Kansas City Southern rail line passing through the center of the county. When we talk about location, we have location.”
But with very well funded economic development programs to the north and south, it is a challenge to bring new industries and business to Stone County.
“Large or small, it is always a challenge to get a company interested in one`s area,” Hatten said. “Being just north of the Coast does present some challenges because of some of the offerings that they can make. But we have some things to offer that the ‘larger parks’ can`t offer. I mentioned some of those earlier when talking about our assets. Not all companies want or need to locate in a large park and most don`t need to have waterway access.
“Now don`t misread me on this, all economic developers have certain tools and assets available to them. Yes, I wish we had ALL the tools. Each economic developer and each area has its strengths. Each economic developer has something different to offer. Something that the other economic developers don`t have or something they can do better than the other economic developer. Stone County has certain offerings that others can only wish that they had.”
Stone County is a member of the “Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance,” which is made up of the economic development developers located in the six coastal counties of Mississippi. The Alliance is relatively new. Hatten said the strengths that this group of economic developers can bring to the table is literally awesome.
“I strongly believe in this regional approach,” Hatten said. “I believe we all will see the results of the alliance very soon.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.