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Is a shake up of wealthy counties in the offing?

Hinds County is still the wealthiest county in the state with an assessed value in 2003 of $1,598,176,145 up from $1,595,988,680 in 2002. But Harrison County is knocking on its door vying for that number one spot, and Hinds is losing population to neighboring Rankin and Madison counties, which rank fifth and sixth in the list of wealthiest counties in the state.

Taxes are based on the assessed value of real estate, which is a percentage of the market value. That varies depending on the class of property. For example, it is 10% for homes and 15% for businesses.

When Madison County recently released its assessed valuation for 2004, it had grown so rapidly that it became the fifth county in the state to pass the $1 billion mark. That has increased from $179 million in 1988, and represents a growth of $253 million since 2003 — much of that growth attributed to the new Nissan plant, according to Madison County tax assessor Gerald Barber. Barber says the county also saw 240 new businesses and about 1,200 new homes added in the past year.

Hinds County is continuing to lose population, and may one day no longer hold the number one spot as Mississippi’s wealthiest county. Records show Hinds County has lost 1,600 homeowners in the past year. Many of those homeowners may have ended up in neighboring Rankin and Madison counties.
Tom Troxler, executive director of the Rankin First Economic Development Authority, said Rankin County is very much in a growth mode. The county’s population of 87,000 in 1990 has increased to more than 125,000 today.

“Every growth projection we see for the next 10 years follows along the same growth rate of about 35% every 10 years,” Troxler said. “All of the demographics point to growth as far as assessed evaluation, numbers of people, and sales tax collections. The growth is projected to go on for the foreseeable future.”

But Troxler said it isn’t necessarily accurate now to call Rankin a bedroom community.

“We probably have as many people who come into the county to work as leave,” Troxler said. “So that tag, bedroom community, isn’t as true as it has been in the past. We are a fast-growing, diverse county with high household incomes and continued growth on the way.”

The Coast’s Harrison County, home to a growing casino and hospitality industry in Biloxi and Gulfport, assessed at $1,590,633,803 in 2003. Another Coast county, Jackson, known as “the Industrial County,” is third in the state at $1,196,597,553.

The coastal counties continue to see rapid residential growth, growth in infrastructure — Biloxi alone has $100 million worth of infrastructure projects underway — extensive commercial development especially along the Interstate 10 corridor and continued strong employment at governmental installations such a Keesler Air Force Base and at industries like Northrop Grumman and Chevron-Texaco in Pascagoula.

In another year or two, it is likely that Harrison will eclipse Hinds as the county with the highest assessed valuation in the state. Currently there are $600 million worth of private construction projects underway on the Coast. The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Biloxi, scheduled to open in the summer of 2005, will cost about $235 million. The Isle of Capri in Biloxi is doing a $79-million expansion, and Beau Rivage, also in Biloxi, is spending about $32 million for remodeling its hotel rooms. A voter referendum in November is planning for a proposed $64-million to $73-million expansion of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, and the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport is in the middle of a $56-million expansion.

Some of the most rapid growth in Mississippi is occurring at the other end of the state in DeSoto County. DeSoto is ranked among the 40 fastest-growing counties in the U.S. The county is attracting a lot of residents relocating from nearby Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn.

“DeSoto County recognized early on that to capture this growth, the emphasis would need to be on infrastructure: roads, sewer, water and quality public education,” said Jim Flanagan, president, DeSoto County Economic Development Council. “With that in the mind, in the mid-1950s DeSoto leaders established the state’s first countywide land use controls, and also consolidated the public schools. We feel that set the foundation in place for the growth to occur.

“The county also realized early on the value of industrial recruitment and retention. Counties located next to a metropolitan area must determine how they want to grow, put a plan in place, and follow that plan very carefully. In DeSoto, that has generated the kind of quality growth that has provided such an increase in assessed valuation and median family income.”

Flanagan said DeSoto was enjoying a rapid pace of growth before casinos were legalized, but that industry has also added significantly to the county’s growth and development.

Lee County is seventh in the state in assessed value with a total of $662,874,621 in 2003 compared to $659,041,134 in 2002. Lee County has the largest number of manufacturing jobs in the state. About 30% of the jobs are in manufacturing, which is three times the national average of 11%

David Rumbarger, president of the Community Development Foundation, Tupelo, said although best known for its furniture manufacturing, only about a third of the manufacturing in Lee County is in furniture making. Other significant manufacturing operations include Cooper Tire and Rubber, Tecumseh Products Co. (compressors), MTB (lawn mowers and tillers) and Fabco (metal products for Nissan).

While there have been concerns about job losses in manufacturing in Mississippi and nationwide, Rumbarger said many of the state manufacturers are “fighting tooth and nail every day to stay ahead of the competition.”

“Manufacturing is becoming more lean and more efficient,” he said. “When it becomes more lean and efficient, it can compete better internationally. And that is what most companies are trying to do right now.”

Tupelo is also a retail and medical hub for the region. North Mississippi Health Services has more than 4,000 employees in Lee County.

“It is a healthy mix between manufacturing, service and retail that keeps Lee County strong,” Rumbarger said. “Tourism is big in Lee County with the recently opened Automobile Museum, Buffalo Park — which has the largest buffalo herd east of the Mississippi — and certainly the Elvis Birthplace. Twice a year the Furniture Market brings in 35,000 people. And a new 114-bed Hilton Garden Inn hotel and conference downtown is under construction.”

Retail, manufacturing, defense and healthcare are the cornerstones of the economy for the next wealthiest county in Mississippi, Lowndes, which ranked eighth in the state in 2003. In 2002, Lowndes didn’t even make the top ten list.
Lowndes, whose county seat is Columbus, is home to two Weyerhaeuser facilities representing $1.1 billion in investments and a $550-million Cogentrix electric power plant. The Columbus Air Force Base, one of three pilot training bases for the U.S. Air Force, has an annual payroll of $115 million with about 1,400 people employed at the base.
Joe Higgins, CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, said there is nearly an equal distribution of white- and blue-collar jobs in Lowndes County. The county also attracts shoppers from a large surrounding area.

“Columbus is the retail 64,000-pound gorilla for this part of the world,” Higgins said. “We have just short of a billion in retail sales each year. We are also a hub for banking and healthcare. Baptist Hospital Golden Triangle is undergoing a 135-bed expansion. In 10 years Baptist will have invested $100 million in our hospital.”

Columbus is also home to the “W,” Mississippi University for Women, which has for the eighth time in 11 years been awarded as one of the best value colleges in the U.S. News & World Report.

Lowdnes hopes to soon be following in the steps of Madison County in attracting a major new development. Recently a megasite industrial park was certified by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Lowndes is one of only two megasites in the 80,000 square miles served by TVA.

The state’s ninth wealthiest county is Lauderdale County located east of Jackson. Lauderdale’s assessment went from $462,120,306 in 2002 to $475,034,140 in 2003.

Recognized as the center of East Mississippi and West Alabama, Meridian is located at the intersection of two major interstates, I-20 and I-59.

The Meridian Naval Air Station is the largest employer in the area with 3,358 employees. Peavey Electronics, one of the world’s top manufacturers of sound equipment for the music industry, comes in second with 1,500 employees. And thousands of people are employed working in the healthcare field. The East Mississippi State Hospital employs 1,123, Rush Foundation Hospital has 1,065 employees, Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center nearly 1,000, Riley Memorial Hospital, 579. Another major manufacturer is Avery Dennison, which produces three-ring binders.

Warren County located on the Mississippi River east of Jackson is ranked 10th in the state for 2003 with an assessed valuation of $474,932,359, up from $456,919,169 in 2002. Warren County thrives on a mixture of industry, retail, health care services, governmental installations and tourism. Civil War battlegrounds and casinos attract numerous tourists, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station employs more than 2,000.

Jimmy Heidel, executive director, Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority, said the county’s strategic location offering all three modes of transportation — highways, rails and air — helps attract new industry.

“Everything is regional, just-in-time delivery,” Heidel said. “It makes it easier for industry to manufacture here and use all three modes of transportation to build their market. That has given us the opportunity to have major manufacturing here, such as two major Nissan suppliers.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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