Collins — Billy Pickering is often considered a one-man economic development machine for Covington County.
For the last 40 years, the owner of a dozen or so businesses has single-handedly boosted the tax coffers — and tourism — in the rural town of 2,700 in South Mississippi.
“I call him ‘King of the Hill,’” said Marie Shoemake, executive director of the Covington County Chamber of Commerce, referring to his properties on U.S. 49 between the two Collins exits. “Everything Billy’s built has been well researched, meticulously planned and is quality first-class. He’s been such a positive influence on our community.”
A lifelong resident of Covington County, Pickering grew up in a large family of entrepreneurs. His father and grandfather owned country stores in the Kola community. When he was old enough, Pickering ran the register, stocked goods, and learned how important it was to live by the Golden Rule.
“When I was 21, I came out of Mississippi State and opened my own convenience store, Wag-a-Bag,” said Pickering. “I was the first to sell self-service gas in Collins. Two or three years later, I opened a dry goods/shoe store next to it. About 30 years ago, I had Dixieland Finance when I put in the True Value hardware store.”
Pickering then invested in commercial property, initially building office space for rent, before venturing into larger projects.
“Building the Best Western six years ago was a big leap of faith,” said Pickering, who has won numerous franchise and chamber awards for the project. “People ask me every day why I did such a nice hotel, but it’s working. It’s been a good investment.”
Soon after, Pickering built a Huddle House next door. Last year, he built and leased The Cedars, a reasonably-priced, buffet-style restaurant that has become a popular meeting place for local folks.
When Pickering’s mother, “Brown” Pickering, needed to move to an assisted living home six years ago, he built Covington Ridge, an upscale 29-unit facility. After she died three years ago, he sold it.
“I remember his mother was the first to move in, and I could see what a love for family Billy has,” said Shoemake. “He’s just so good to everybody.”
Behind the hotel, Pickering added 14 extended stay apartments, occupied primarily by subcontractors for the nearby Colonial Pipeline and Plantation Pipeline, and a 29-hookup RV park that routinely stays full.
“MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) has really improved Highway 49, which is the second-most traveled road in the state, the main artery from Memphis to the Gulf Coast,” Pickering explained. “Travelers from East Texas and the Midwest come right by us going to the Coast or Florida. When school turns out every year, we see a lot of tours coming by our doors.”
Focused on service
Shoemake insists it’s not just a numbers game that allows Pickering’s businesses to be so successful.
“Word of mouth advertising for Billy’s projects is phenomenal because his businesses give such good service,” said Shoemake. “His wife, Rachel, deserves so much credit. She is such a hard worker, right there by his side. You should see the flowers at Best Western. She could be a florist. Whatever they do, they put their whole heart into it.”
By the end of February, Pickering expects to complete construction on four 1,600-square-foot townhouses.
“We’re desperate for quality places for people to live,” said Shoemake. “Because we’re within commuting distance, we’re getting the overgrowth of the Hattiesburg area. Nowadays, it’s nothing for people to drive 20 minutes to work. People are looking for a quality community in which to live. We certainly feel like ours is.”
Pickering is mulling other investments along U.S. 49 in Collins while he is shying away from building along Highway 84, which briefly turns into Main Street. Construction is underway on the Highway 84 Bypass, which will divert traffic from downtown Collins.
“There’s not as much east-west traffic as there is north and south,” he said. “The mayor (V.O. Smith) has done a lot for Collins by improving the streets and everything. But when 84 comes around Collins, I don’t see that much growth downtown.”
Pickering’s entire family has remained in Covington County, where many of them are involved in various businesses. His brother and sister-in-law, Dan and Joyce Pickering, own The Meadows, a catering business and reception hall near Collins.
His uncle, James Pickering, is also a builder and commercial developer in South Mississippi. They are staunch supporters of the community.
Development — from the heart?
“I’ve always said that a lot of economic development comes from the heart,” said Shoemake. “Billy wants a better community and a better future for his two sons and daughter and grandchildren and extended family. He works tirelessly for the chamber, having served on our board and having played an integral part behind the scenes in many other projects, such as helping open the Okatoma Golf Club. He’s an ideal community person who wants to see a better quality of life for all our people. I just wish I could clone him.”
Pickering, who epitomizes the phrase “good ol’ boy,” blushes when praised.
“I don’t have a fancy title, I’m just Billy,” he said. “Collins is on a roll. I’ve been here 61 years, and this town has been very good to me. I’ve invested heavily in it and I just wish more people would, too.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.