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For development, George County knows meaning of location

LUCEDALE — The familiar real estate axiom “location, location, location” may be the best thing going for George County in its quest for industrial and economic development. That may seem like a paradox for this county which, like most of Mississippi’s 82 governmental subunits, is rural and traditionally challenged to recruit industries and jobs.

However, George County, nestled in the southeastern part of the state with populous Mobile, Ala., to the east, the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the south and Hattiesburg to the west, and with good transportation in and out, feels they have much to offer.

As the first full-time executive director since the George County Economic Development Foundation was formed 23 years ago, Sue Wright sees the county’s location as a positive. New metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) have been formed with George County a part of two. They are included in the Jackson-George Counties MSA and the Mobile County, Ala.-George County MSA.

“Being on the state line and near the Coast is geographically beneficial,” she said. “Now when developers look up MSAs, we’ll pop up, too.”

Nationally known site consultant Mark Sweeney of McCallum Sweeny Consulting out of Greenville, S.C., says locating industry anywhere is a challenge because that type of activity has gone down in recent years, and it’s more of a challenge for rural areas. However, George County has good things going for it, he feels.

“They have good road access and lower land costs,” he said. “They are doing a lot of things right and I think they’re in a place to watch. I’m impressed with their organization and the plan they’re putting in place.”

Sweeney specifically points to the 1,200-acre property that George County identified for industrial development when leaders saw that the existing two industrial parks were filled. The site is served by a railroad with direct access to the Gulf Coast and by two four-lane highways that give quick access to Interstate 10.

“A lot of communities in our business are not prepared with sites,” he said. “They’re better off being prepared that way.”

Sweeney and another consultant, David Kolzow, also say George County is doing the right thing to form regional alliances. The Gulf Coast Alliance consists of Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone and George counties.

“It makes sense and more of a presence to approach the marketplace this way,” Sweeney said. “We really look regionally, and this should position them to see more traffic.”

Kolzow, formerly with the University of Southern Mississippi, is assisting the Gulf Coast Alliance in looking for development opportunities. This organization will help the smaller counties serve a broader regional market. He says George County is in an excellent situation to capitalize on its geography and transportation infrastructure. There is a limited amount of industrial type land in the coastal counties and George County, just to the north, is well suited to serve those counties.

“They have large tracts of land available, two railroads serve them and even though they’re not on the interstate, they have good access,” he said. “Since they are on the edge of the Pine Belt, I see an opportunity for them to go after some higher value-added wood products. That’s a growth industry that doesn’t have a big presence in Mississippi.”

Kolzow thinks the county will also have a lot of opportunity to develop some quality housing as an attractive alternative and easy commute as the Coast counties grow. Additionally, he says George County can capture some of the wholesale nursery business in the southern part of the county as Mobile, long known for nurseries, continues to grow. Wright said they are already on that track. “George County is the number-one vegetable producer and ‘Wholesale Nursery Capital of Mississippi,’” she said, “but our target opportunities are also tied to defense, metal fabrication, timber and distribution that are clusters in the region.”

She said the county will soon have the benefit of a significant, targeted industry study conducted by Kolzow that will show new opportunities. The study was made economically feasible through George County’s membership in the Gulf Coast Alliance and grants from the Mississippi Development Authority and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“Opportunities don’t stop at the county or state line, and what happens in one community impacts others,” Wright said. “Improved communication, information sharing, mutually developed goals and problem solving, leveraged financial resources and political clout will benefit everyone.”

In addition to abundant land, railroads and highways, she says the county is within 30 to 60 miles of three airports and has well more than a million people within a 60-mile radius. Many of these have job skills strengthened by experience and training at major coastal industries such as Northrop Grumman and Chevron. There are also eight college and universities within 60 miles and George County High School has a level five accreditation.

A Government Entities Meeting (GEM) group was formed of all elected city and county officials to meet once a month to discuss development issues. They also hold frequent community forums to obtain input. The president of the George County Board of Supervisors, Kelly Wright, said, “Our future opportunities are tied to two important factors, infrastructure development at the industrial park and recreational facilities for our youth. Both of these are doable and will cap off all the other great things we have going for us.”

The development of the new 1,200-acre industrial site put the county in a position as a contender for two automotive engine plant projects last year, Wright said, and clearly demonstrates that they are on the radar screen for major companies and site location consultants to consider.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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