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Top 10 cities are centers of business development

Population centers and a high amount of sales tax collections seem to go hand in hand to create cities of economic leadership in Mississippi. Although the state’s largest 10 cities are not considered large by the standards of many states, they are this rural state’s most populous and are meccas for shopping, employment, education, cultural and medical services.

To date in 2005, the top 10 cities by sales tax collections remain the same as for the previous year with the largest city, Jackson, leading the pack and Laurel coming in 10th.

Laurel, however, with a population of 18,000 is not among the state’s largest populated cities. Longtime Laurel commercial Realtor Chris Wilson says the trade area extends throughout 60,000-population Jones County and into Wayne, Smith, Jasper, Clarke and Perry counties. The county’s only other incorporated city, Ellisville, is even smaller with 4,000 to 5,000 people.

“We don’t pay much attention to the population of towns. Most people live outside the incorporated areas. There’s a high density in the rural area,” Wilson said, “and Laurel is the place to shop.”

He said a variety of retail businesses and restaurants continue to open, and that prices for retail space are increasing to meet the demand. Manufacturing jobs, rather than service jobs, remain high in this Southeast Mississippi county. “Unemployment is just under 4%,” he said. “If you want a job in Jones County, you can find it.”

Darrin Webb, senior economist with the Institutions of Higher Learning, says he’s tracked the trend over the past several years that larger cities do better along with places near metropolitan areas.

“We expect that trend to continue,” he said. “Economically speaking, larger cities have a larger capacity to perform. They have a better-trained workforce and more people to sell to. Rural counties have declined and will continue to do so. There’s very little there to attract industries.”

He continued by saying that he expects areas in between rural and metropolitan areas to do well. Many state residents prefer to live in the country and drive into cities to work.

Webb says the rising price of gasoline will not have much of an effect on where people live, work and shop.

“The cities will grow anyway because that’s where the jobs are,” he said. “That’s a trend that’s been going on for a while and I don’t see it changing.”

The Jackson metro area, Lee County/Pontotoc area, Hattiesburg, DeSoto County and the Coast are among the fastest-growing areas in the state, according to Webb.

Gulfport’s new mayor, Brent Warr, says the state’s second largest city has an opportunity to shine in economic growth because it has a large geographic area. “We have a lot of real estate that can be developed and we will grow through retail sales and ad valorem taxes,” he said, “so that every occurrence is a ratchet up rather than in the other direction.”

With the port city’s space, industrial seaway, condo development and U.S. 49 corridor, it’s a natural place for growth. Warr says the infrastructure needs work and will be a focus of his administration. “We have some master planning going on that will redefine the image of the city,” he said. “That’s our challenge.”

At the other end of the state, Ginger Hill says Southaven is having a lot of people from all over the country move into the 25-year-old city. “We have amenities that attract them,” said the Chamber of Commerce executive director. “We have quality education, low taxes, good medical care, and quality of life in a rural setting that’s close enough to a large metropolitan city that you can be at an international airport in 20 minutes.”

Hill, who moved to the area from Memphis in 1991, says Southaven participates in a regional approach with Memphis to attracting more business. “The key is controlled growth, and we have the type of leadership in place to lead that change,” she said.

Sales tax figures show that shopping is a major draw for the Capital City, says MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce president Duane O’Neill. “We have a lot going for us that brings people into the community in addition to shopping, but they come in from everywhere to take advantage of the variety of things here,” he said.

A couple examples of that retail growth are along Lakeland Drive in Flowood and Highway 463 and Highland Colony Parkway in Madison.

In the Hattiesburg area, retail growth is occurring in several areas with the U.S. 98 corridor in Lamar County one of the prime spots. “Oh yeah, it’s hopping and vibrant,” says commercial Realtor Andy Stetelman.

Pearl, Vicksburg and Flowood rank just under the top 10 cities for sales tax collections and with the growth being experienced in these areas may very well push a sister city aside to move up next year.

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

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