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Growing Pontotoc County looking to diversify business

Pontotoc — Pontotoc County and the City of Pontotoc are in a period of discovery, looking at what they have to offer new businesses while they proudly support their existing businesses. Life is good in the northeast county with a population of 27,206 — 10,284 households — and a median household income of $41,181. Manufacturing makes up 58.9% of employment and most of that is in the furniture industry. Leaders, however, are not resting on industrial laurels but looking ahead.

“We’re in a discovery phase and will have to diversify,” says Jeff Rowell, executive director of the Pontotoc County Chamber of Commerce. “We must redefine ourselves and find our niche and how we fit into the new economy.”

Fearing that some manufacturing jobs may be diverted to China, the county is making the area’s positive qualities known. Rowell says the area has a lot going for it including level five schools in the city and county, a major university down the road in Oxford, a thriving furniture industry nearby in Tupelo and big city amenities a short drive away in Memphis. U.S. 76 runs through the county, and the north/south route, Mississippi 15, is scheduled for widening in the future.

A new direction

“Our economic health is pretty good right now, but we’re in a phase of finding a new direction in case we lose some manufacturing,” he added. “Our main selling points are the school systems, quality of life in a small town atmosphere, location and great people.”

Along with Union and Lee counties, Pontotoc County is a part of the Wellspring Megasite project that is Tennessee Valley Authority certified and now in a marketing phase. Also, both the county and the city are becoming a part of the Main Street Program with downtown Pontotoc as the centerpiece.

“It’s a diamond in the rough,” Rowell said. “We still have retail there and are trying to maximize its potential. We need more places to shop and eat and that’s what we’re working on now.”

Dose of reality

Pontotoc Mayor Bill Rutledge whole-heartedly supports the town’s revitalization. He recently led downtown business leaders on a tour of the central business district with a slide presentation that showed things as they really are. The three-term mayor said the realistic slides were not intended to embarrass anyone and that he believes it is the start of a major renovation program.

“People are learning to get more involved in government and what they want the city to look like,” he said. “There’s a lot of remodeling going on downtown, and we resurfaced the highway around the courthouse. We have several new businesses going in and a lot of others looking at our town.”

Rutledge is especially pleased that House Bill 1019 passed and became state law. This new law allows municipalities to put penalties on property that needs cleaning up and take owners to court. It also allows property owners within 400 feet of a derelict property to petition the court for action.

“We’ve already sent a number of letters out and had some responses agreeing to clean up,” he said. “I like that surrounding landowners can become involved in this, too.”

Rowell notes that downtown Pontotoc does not have to fight competition from a shopping mall although he feels a location outside of town would be perfect for an outlet mall.

Ashley Furniture in Ecru has 3,000 employees and is the county’s largest employer. Other important companies are ITW Paslode, a staples and nails manufacturer with 125 employees, and Pontotoc Springs with 60 employees.

A part of the community since 1983, Pontotoc Springs makes springs for the auto industry and metal stamping for the auto, furniture and other industries. Human resources director Teresa Montgomery says the area has a lot to offer her company’s employees. “When kids graduate from school, they can stay here because we hire a big variety of people,” she said. “We have very little turnover because people are happy here.”

Pontotoc Springs recently received an ISO/TS rating, which is a quality standard measurement tool. Montgomery said the rating will give the company access to more industries and is one of only 10 companies in the state with this standard.

Believing in her town and county, Montgomery continues to lead a community relations committee that she started in 1994 when she needed to hire 100 people and wanted input. For more than 10 years the group of business, industry and professional leaders has met once a month to share what’s going on in their world.

“We average 20 to 25 in attendance and everyone talks. There is no program and there are no dues,” she said. “We always leave knowing something we didn’t know before.”

Poised for growth, development

Rowell took the reins of the chamber just six months ago and is busy getting the word out about the county. He started a newsletter and is planning to begin an updated Web site to use as a recruiting tool.

“Pontotoc County is poised to experience incredible growth and development in the future,” he said. “It is already one of the fastest-growing counties in North Mississippi. In fact, it doesn’t really have much of a choice of whether it wants to grow but does have a choice about how it wants to grow. This county has a great opportunity to prosper and we should strike while the iron is hot.”

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

About Lynn Lofton

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