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4Jackson more than twice the size of Gulfport

Wealthiest cities are regional engines for economic growth

Big cities translate into major revenue for Mississippi in the form of sales taxes, with the top 10 cities in the state contributing about 43% of the total amount of sales tax collected in the state. That is just one indication of how the state’s major metropolitan areas serve as economic engines in their regions and for the state overall.

“By just about any measure you look at, it is the population centers that are growing,” said Darrin Webb, senior economist, Institutions of Higher Learning. “You either need to be in a population center or near a population center. The most rural areas of Mississippi are doing very poorly, and have been for several years.”

With increasing trends towards telecommuting, more people could live in the rural areas. But Webb says there are two reasons why that isn’t happening more: Mississippi has the lowest percentage of personal computers per capita in the U.S., so on average state residents are less computer literate than most states. Second, many people want the amenities of a metropolitan area including good schools and opportunities for entertainment and shopping.

“People want the amenities of the metro area, and employers are going where the people are,” Webb said. “But when I say metro areas, I’m not necessarily talking about downtown Jackson or even Hattiesburg. Counties adjacent to these areas are doing well, too. People like country-style living, but they are working in the metro areas. Covington County comes to mind. It is north of Hattiesburg, but it has grown and done well. It is a bedroom community for Hattiesburg. You are seeing that pattern all over the country. People like the amenities of rural areas, but want to be near metro areas so they can drive to work. That is especially true in Mississippi, because we have a history of liking to live in the rural areas for reasons like hunting and fishing.”

Webb is a personal example of what he is talking about. He lives in Pelahatchie, and drives 45 minutes to work.

“I would rather live in Pelahatchie because I like the small-town atmosphere,” he said. “Evidently, a lot of people think the same thing.”

While the City of Jackson is losing population, the metro area as a whole is doing fairly well. Madison and Rankin counties are growing tremendously, and smaller metropolitan cities like Raymond and Clinton are doing well.

With a population of 184,256, Jackson is more than twice the size of the next largest city in the state, Gulfport, population 71,127. Jackson also has about three times the amount of sales activity as Gulfport. Jackson received $36 million in sales tax diversions (18.5% of total sales taxes are rebated to the cities) in fiscal 2004 compared to Gulfport at $17.7 million. Another metro Jackson city, Ridgeland, is seventh in the state in total sales tax diversions about $9 million for FY 2004.

Franklin Tate, deputy director for the Jackson Department of Planning and Development, said Jackson serves as the economic engine for the entire middle part of the state.

“The City of Jackson has the largest daytime traffic population of any city in Mississippi because it remains the center of commerce for government and business activity,” Tate said. “We consider ourselves to be the state’s downtown. Obviously, we have the biggest and most vibrant downtown areas in terms of commercial and office related activities. Being the seat of state government positions us well to take advantage of the business- related, as well as governmental, activity. We are fortunate to be at the intersection of two major corridors, I-55 going north and south and I-20 going east and west. That makes the City of Jackson and the entire metro area very attractive to business when making location decisions.”

While Jackson has been losing population, Tate believes the time for a renaissance is near. He says many urban centers across the U.S. over the past several decades that have seen massive retail and commercial flight into the suburbs have since gone through a revitalization phase. Success stories include Memphis, Birmingham and even Atlanta.

“They have been able to go through this period of downtown revitalization and bringing businesses and, in particular, residential living, back to their downtown areas,” Tate said. “We are beginning to experience that here in downtown Jackson. We are in constant dialogue with developers who are interested in doing mixed use development — retail, commercial and residential developments — in the downtown area.”

Gulfport, population 71,127; Biloxi, population 50,644, the state’s third largest city; and Pascagoula, population 26,200, the 10th largest city in the state, anchor Mississippi’s economy on its southern border with the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi State Port Authority at Gulfport and Port of Pascagoula have significant direct and indirect impacts on the state’s economy by serving as commerce hubs for state and international cargo. The port at Gulfport is one of the top importers of bananas in the U.S., and is the country’s top exporter of frozen poultry to Russia and its former republics.

The Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula is the largest private employer in the state with more than 12,000 people employed. Pascagoula also has the Chevron-Texaco Refinery, one of the top 10 largest refineries in the country. A number of other industries lead to Jackson having the largest industrial base in the state.

In Biloxi, casinos have taken root to now provide employment for about 15,000 people. Since gaming was legalized about 11 years ago, Biloxi has generated more than $600 million for the state in gaming revenue taxes.

“We make a significant impact that benefits the entire state,” said Vincent Creel, spokesman for the City of Biloxi. “The other big industries impacting Biloxi are Keesler Air Force Base, as well as one that is overlooked a lot, the seafood industry. Those are two things that have significant impacts on our community. It isn’t casino versus seafood versus Keesler. It is a matter of Keesler AND seafood AND casinos. The key is to make sure they are not impacting each other in a negative way, and we have been successful in doing that.”

Keesler is the largest employer in the state with current employment of 16,259. The Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport is also a major economic force with about 4,741 employees.

Gulfport and Biloxi are major hubs for retail with Gulfport responsible for about 5.3% of the total state tax collections in FY 2004, and Biloxi responsible for 3.7%.

At the other end of the state, Southaven, 28,977, the seventh largest city in the state, has seen the highest percentage growth in sales tax revenues between FY 2003 and FY 2004. Southaven had an increase of 14% compared to the next two highest cities, Biloxi with an increase of 10.55% and Hattiesburg, 10.45%. Annexations had some impact on increasing sales tax revenues for all three cities.

Large numbers of people are moving out of the Memphis area south across the border into Southaven and other cities in DeSoto County. Diane M. Hill, executive director, Southaven Chamber of Commerce, said a good education system is one of the biggest factors the county has in its favor.

“We just learned DeSoto County Schools tested the highest in the state on the ACT,” Hill said. “We have a cooperative and proactive local government, and a good chamber. We hear time and again from people locating business here how easy it is to do business in Southaven. The average time from when a new business walks in the door of the city planning department and receives a permit is less than 30 days.”

Southaven is poised to keep moving up the list of the state top sales tax revenue producers. Three new malls are planned. One is under construction. And DeSoto County was recently named a Free Trade Zone, which is expected to attract more industrial and warehousing businesses.

“Ross Perot Jr. has a development here, and is bringing in partners in conjunction with this new approval,” Hill said. “He was one of the driving forces in getting that Free Trade status for our county. We anticipate seeing a strong growth in other areas, as well. Tourism is growing because we have the nation’s largest baseball complex located here. Each summer we entertain 200,000 to 300,000 visitors for baseball tournaments.”

Hattiesburg, located halfway between the Coast and Jackson, is known as the Hub City for good reason. It is a regional draw for retail and comes in third in the state in sales tax collections, chipping in nearly 5% of the state’s total.

Beth Baugh, public relations coordinator for Hattiesburg, said the city just made the “Top 100 List of Cities in the Country to Move To.” She attributes the city’s increasing population to growth at Southern Miss — one of the state’s three major universities — and the field of medicine.

Baugh said the recent annexation of the Oak Grove area helped boost sales tax revenues, and that since several major new retail developments are underway, by this time next year there may be another big increase in sales tax.
In addition to education, retail and medical, Hattiesburg has a strong manufacturing base.

“We have a very well balanced economy,” Baugh said. “When there is a decline in the national economy, our economy is not so hard hit as some other areas of the state and country.”

Like Hattiesburg, Meridian, with a population just under 40,000, serves as a regional draw for shoppers. The city collected more than $12 million in sale tax diversions in FY 2004, ranking sixth in the state and seeing healthy growth of 6.54%.

“Our community is a great place for young people, families and seniors alike,” says Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith. “We’re big enough to have the amenities of a metropolitan center but small enough that neighbors are still neighborly and traffic congestion just doesn’t exist. Our crime rate is the lowest of the largest cities in the state.”

Greenville, population 41,663, the fifth largest city in the state, is the center of commerce for the Mississippi Delta. Being located next to the Mississippi River is key to the economy of Greenville, says Tommy Hart, executive director, Industrial Foundation of Washington County.

“The commerce on the river influences our community greatly from supplying barges and repair of river transportation equipment to shipping of goods through our port,” Hart said. “We are a port of entry into the country. The river is an industry in itself, and one of the most important segments of our economy. Also, we are sitting on the richest agricultural land in the world, which is a dominant feature in our economy. It enables us to serve as the retail and service center for a very large region, as well as distribution centered to that area. Of course, our tourism and gaming industry continues to grow with two new casino developments about to be initiated, to add to the two existing casinos. We are growing in that entertainment segment for the region.”

Greenville has the only enclosed mall within 100 miles, and educational facilities are also a major draw. Greenville has a higher education center that houses branches of Mississippi Valley, Delta State and Mississippi Delta Community College all in one facility.

Another Mississippi River city, Vicksburg, population 26,407, is the ninth largest city in the sate. Jimmy Heidel, executive director, Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority, touts the city’s diversified economy.

“We get about a million tourists a year to Civil War battlegrounds, the Mississippi River, the old Courthouse Museum and antebellum homes,” Heidel said. “The tourism community is very viable in our community. We have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Waterways Experiment Station, which employ more than 2,000 scientists, including many engineers and Ph.Ds. It is a big research center, so people come from all over the world to do research here. Anything dealing with waterways or the structure of buildings around the world is studied here. We have the fourth largest supercomputer in the U.S.”

Other cornerstones of the economy include serving as a regional shopping area for a large surrounding area going over into Louisiana, north into Yazoo County, and south down into Claiborne and Jefferson counties.

“We are also a regional medical center,” Heidel said. “We have a brand new $123-million hospital here.”

Laurel, located in the southern part of the state near Hattiesburg, doesn’t make the top 10 list of Mississippi’s largest cities in terms of population, but it ranks tenth in sales tax collections.

“A lot of the retail strength goes to the number of jobs and payroll, which means a lot of people have money to spend in the retail business,” said Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County. “We have several new car dealers and the big ticket items would lend a lot to the high sales revenues. As in most cities, Wal-Mart contributes a great deal. Our oil service business is something no other community in Mississippi has to the magnitude that we have.”

Howard Industries has about 3,000 employees in Jones County, and the area’s second largest employer is the South Central Medical Center.

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

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