DeSoto County`s Web site boasts: “Bordered by Tennessee to the north, we are truly at the top of Mississippi.” The county is also at the top of the state in population growth.
DeSoto County was recently ranked the 36th fastest-growing county in the country, the only county in Mississippi to make the top 100 list.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, DeSoto County`s population grew from 107,199 in 2000 to 124,378 in 2003, an increase of about 16%. That follows the county`s rapid growth of 57.9% between 1990 and 2000.
Southaven Mayor Greg Davis said his city is now the eighth- largest municipality in Mississippi, increasing in recent years from the 17th largest city to the top 10 listing.
“We’ve moved up drastically the past few years,” Davis said. “We now have all the amenities people used to have to go to Memphis to find.”
Davis said a number of factors are driving the growth in Southaven and the rest of DeSoto County. Property taxes are about 35% of what they are across the state line, an important cost-of-living factor in a family determining where they are going to live. There are more job opportunities with industrial prospects and retail outlets locating in the county and projects such as a $175-million hospital expansion at Baptist DeSoto in Southaven. And crime rates are low with DeSoto ranking 1.5 on the national FBI crime statistics scale compared to nearby Memphis at 15.1.
“Violent crime is almost unheard of,” Davis said. “It is important to have a safe place to live. People feel comfortable walking around in their neighborhoods, and are close to shopping areas to buy everything they want to purchase. They feel safe and secure, and know their children are getting a good education. We have a consolidated school district county wide, which gives us an excellent public education system.”
An abundance of recreational facilities in the area is another bonus. Southaven has spent $20 million on recreational facilities in recent years, including construction of the largest youth baseball complex in America, Snowden Park, which attracts an estimated 120,000 visitors during the summer. The city also has soccer and football, a multi-purpose arena, skateboard parks and neighborhood parks.
The population increase has brought with it a boom in housing, retail and commercial developments. The additional retail outlets have meant increases in sales tax revenues that represent 45% of general fund revenues for the city. Davis said the sales tax revenues have allowed the city to double the size of its police and fire departments, and keep up with infrastructure for water, sewer and roads, without increasing property taxes.
Olive Branch has also seen rapid growth, and Mayor Sam Rikard said he does not expect the growth to slow over the next several years.
“There are always challenges meeting the needs of a growing community,” Rikard said. “Long-range plans are made and then adjusted to meet actual demand. Leaders have to have a vision for what the community will become, but also have to be flexible and have the ability to adapt to changes along the way. My job is very rewarding because we are able to plan for projects and see them become a reality.”
Gene Thach, president of the DeSoto County Board of Supervisor, said the county has done a good job managing the rapid growth in order to keep up with infrastructure improvements while retaining the quality of life that is bringing people to the county in droves.
“We feel we have something good going on in DeSoto County,” Thach said. “We have seven or eight families coming in per day. We are just booming. A lot of people are coming in from Memphis, and a lot are coming in because of new industrial and warehousing jobs.
“We feel strongly that the five cities and DeSoto County have been able to control the growth. It hasn`t gotten out of hand. We have zoning in place to protect property that is already there. A lot of counties in Mississippi don`t have that. We were one of the first counties in Mississippi to having planning and zoning. If you have a nice house, you don`t have to worry about someone moving in with a trailer next door and devaluing your property.”
DeSoto County just got the good news that it has been taken off the EPA list for being in non-attainment with ozone levels. Ozone is a pollutant that can be harmful at certain levels, and being in non-attainment status can impact funding for highway expansion projects that could make the pollution worse. And industries locating or expanding in a non-attainment area can be required to do more expensive pollution controls.
“Industries and commercial businesses don`t like to come into places that are in non-attainment because there are a lot of extra things they have to do,” Thach said. “It can affect federal funds for building highways, too. We are real pleased to be in attainment now.”
Because of the growth in the number of school age children, DeSoto County currently has plans to build 17 schools at a cost of $115 million. Thach said the county has the second-largest school system in the state after the City of Jackson.
“In the next few years, we may be the largest,” he said. “We have a tremendous school system, and that is a big draw for us, especially out of Memphis where they have so many problems.”
Mississippi removing the tax on warehouses has resulted in attracting a number of distribution centers, and the county had a hearing recently on becoming a port of entry, which allows raw materials to be imported without taxes. There are ports of entry in Gulfport, Vicksburg and Jackson.
“But we don`t have one in North Mississippi, so that is really going to help us,” Thach said. “That will mean a lot to the surrounding area.”
Thach said a big draw to DeSoto County is the versatility of housing available ranging from $75,000 homes for first-time home buyers and downsizing retirees to mid-income neighborhoods with parks and walking trails, to upscale houses that cost upwards of $500,000. And taxes are far lower than in neighboring Shelby County, Tenn., which doesn`t have homestead exemption for property taxes.
All the business activity means DeSoto County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. And DeSoto leaders think the boom times will continue.
“Things are good,” Thach said. “We are having to push to keep up with infrastructure such as roads. We hope the growth continues, and expect that it will.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.