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Coast’s economy, population and employment continues to grow

Long Beach — The Coast’s economy is growing and will continue to do so, according to the 2004 annual report presented to business leaders by the Harrison County Development Commission on the Gulf Park Campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.

“It was a banner year, and our goal is to improve the quality of life for all residents,” said Frank Castiglia, commission chairman. “The average income is 15% above the state average. The unemployment rate decreased and is below the national average. There was $210 million spent on construction, up 23% from the year before. Economic development is everybody’s business.”

He said the population of the Biloxi-Gulfport-Pascagoula metropolitan statistical area is 370,300 with 52% of the resident base in Gulfport and Biloxi. The growth in Gautier and Hancock County outstrips the national and state averages. The Coast-wide area’s population is expected to grow by 4% between now and 2006.

Sixty percent of the Coast’s 12,000 businesses are in Harrison County. Overall future employment is projected to grow at a rate of 2.5% to 3% per year with transportation and warehousing expected to experience significant growth. The largest portion of the employment pie goes to the service and miscellaneous sector with 43%, followed by government with 21% and wholesale/retail trade with 13%.

The tourism market continues to be strong. The 11.5 million visits per year account for more than 37% of the state total of 30.7 million visits in 2004. The largest percentage of visitors come from surrounding states including Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Arkansas.

Gray Swoope, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, addressed the group. “The Mississippi Gulf Coast is very important to the state’s economy,” he said. “We will see continued growth and prosperity, and the MDA wants to continue our partnership.”

He said a needed shift in thinking about business incentives is the biggest obstacle faced in continuing to grow the economy of the area as well as the rest of the state.

“We are moving from the manufacturing sector to the service sector and must balance the old economy with the new,” he said. “We must make this shift in policy to see growth, and we are missing opportunities because we can’t get Momentum Mississippi incentives passed.”

University of Southern Mississippi president Shelby Thames said the university has tried to extend its services to economic development through providing an educated workforce and research. On the Coast, 11% of the population has bachelor-level degrees and 6% has graduate degrees. That compares with 16% for bachelor and 9% for graduate level nationally.

“We need 6% of our current workforce to obtain two more years of university education,” he said. “Southern Mississippi has a commitment to offer diversity of programs and make access to education easy. We want to provide a high level of service.”

Thames said USM wants 6,000 students enrolled on its Gulf Coast Campus in the next two years. Spring enrollments usually go down but this spring semester’s is up by 500 students on the Coast.

He announced that the university purchased the old Garden Park Hospital facility and is renovating it to house the College of Health Education and Research on the Coast. The facility will be used to educate more nurses to fill a critical shortage in the area. Of the $22 million USM received for capital improvements, Thames said $11 million is being used for several projects on the Coast.

Speaking of economic development, he said the university suggests that employers use incentives to encourage a higher level of education among the workforce. Some of those incentives include tuition reimbursement, tying compensation to educational attainment, allowing time off to attend classes and involving management other than human resources in training decisions.

“We can bring Southern Mississippi on site to teach,” Thames said. “Get us in front of your employees.”

Roger Ishee, who represents Harrison County’s district 118 in the House of Representatives, said he attended to get the state of Harrison County, but felt it was for the whole Coast. “We share jobs across county lines and we have to look at the whole region,” he said. “It’s important for us in the legislature to go back to Jackson and take care of the budget. We need to pass Momentum Mississippi for economic development.”

He said approving the final $56 million for Northrop Grumman is also important, noting that a large portion of that amount will be used at the company’s Gulfport facility. “People don’t know that the state owns the Pascagoula facility and leases it to Northrop Grumman,” he said. “That’s the worst kept secret. We are invested in it and it’s time we reinvested.”

Gulfport businessman Michael Mensi, owner of L&M Package Store for 27 years, said he attended the presentation to hear first hand what’s going on with development. “It’s good to see all the development and growth that are taking place on the Coast,” he said.

“It’s also helpful to get some idea as to agencies I can go to for information.”

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

About Lynn Lofton

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