A sense of change had been permeating life in Petal — a city of 10,000 across the Leaf River from Hattiesburg — for some time, with a 2003 annexation, a flux in the retail mix in the downtown area, commercial expansion to the east and construction of a new Mississippi 42 to connect I-59 and the city.
On August 29, all of these changes were overwhelmed as Hurricane Katrina battered Petal.
“Mostly, businesses are up and running,” according to Mayor Carl Scott. “But several businesses in the downtown area were damaged beyond repair, and I don’t know if they’ll open again or not.”
Petal annexed nine square miles of mostly residential area (that also included the Petal High School) to the east in March 2003.
The mayor said that Petal was expanding eastward “and we were trying to go in that direction, in terms of new business development. That’s on hold right now while we catch our breath.”
“There’s no way, after Katrina, to go back to what might have been developed.”
Many of Petal’s development projects depended on the often-delayed completion of the new Mississippi 42, which was finally on track when Katrina hit.
The highway construction is in three phases and contractors were paving Phases I and II, which takes the highway to Petal’s corporate limits, when the hurricane halted work.
“There was no damage to the highway from Katrina,” according to Keith Steele, pre-construction engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. But the contractors who were working on Phases I and II have been taken off this project for work on projects with higher priorities, projects relative to Katrina.”
These projects include debris removal and cleaning highways, as well as highway repairs in Harrison and Jackson counties.
Delays cause concern
Business owners who relocated in anticipation of the highway’s completion were concerned about construction delays and funding, even before Katrina.
Elise Yang of the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant is an owner who opened in a strip mall because she thought the new Mississippi 42 would be completed much sooner.
Yang said that she moved to the restaurant’s present location in early 2004 because of the promise of a traffic increase on the highway.
“Two years we’ve been here and the highway isn’t completed yet,” Yang said. “And that’s hurt our business.”
Judy Carter, the owner of Carter’s Jewelry, which is located near the new Super Wal-Mart, complained that “we were told the highway would be finished in early 2003. We were promised a lot more traffic.”
Other business owners are hoping that Mississippi 42, which Scott said (before Katrina) “opens up all types of opportunities for economic growth and residential development” will not have its funds diverted to hurricane-related projects.
But Steele said that “money has been allocated for the first two phases and contracts have been let, so Katrina will have no effect on this, in terms of funds being diverted to something that is hurricane-related.”
The completion was scheduled for 2006 “but, now, that is uncertain,” Steele said.
Mississippi 42, which the mayor called, “a real asset to the community” and which developers said would be an economic boon to Petal, runs from I-59 to U. S. 11 — Phase I — and from U. S. 11 to the eastern corporate limits of Petal — Phase II. These two phases are 4-lane, as is the existing Mississippi 42, but in a new location.
The highway now goes through the middle of Petal. The new highway has a different route that avoids the middle of town but does go through the Petal city limits, “which is what we wanted,” the mayor said.
“Lots of development projects depend on Mississippi 42,” he added.
Another way of looking at it
Despite the damage, Scott believes that the hurricane could help Petal’s development, because “people drifting up from down South, people who lost their businesses to Katrina, could decide to relocate their businesses to Petal.”
Scott said that Petal has locations available, such as the old Wal-Mart and Sunflower buildings downtown.
Petal has seen no sign of the kind of real estate boom that is taking place in Hattiesburg.
“I’m in the development business and nobody’s been beating on our doors.”
Phase III of the highway (officially named the Evelyn Gandy Parkway after a former Hattiesburg resident and lieutenant governor) goes from East Petal to Macedonia Road. This stretch of Mississippi 42 is now two lanes but will be widened to five lanes.
This phase was scheduled to be completed in 2007 but, after Katrina, this is uncertain, Steele said.
The $46 million project is funded by both federal and state money.
Downtown Petal, on the existing Mississippi 42, was in a state of flux before Katrina and (as of press time), that flux had increased into uncertainty that will continue until the businesses damaged beyond repair decide whether to rebuild.
Before Katrina, two downtown business, Alfa Furniture Restoration and Ruthie’s Attic (antiques) were being forced to close because the building in which they’re located had been sold. (The Realtor handling the sale would not comment on the sale or the new owner.)
Four new businesses were opening, two of them — Panther’s Pizza and More and Curves Fitness Center — next to the old (vacant) Wal-Mart building. The Grand Bank recently opened a little further west on Mississippi 42 and Peter’s Po’Boys anticipated a September opening in a downtown building that also houses Subway, High & Hers Family Hair Care and Southeastern Cash Advances and Title Cash.
Petal’s major employers are in the fields of government, services, education and wholesale and retail trade, according to information from the city government. The retail trade area extends north into Jones County and east into Perry County.
The International Checker Hall of Fame is one of Petal’s most unusual attractions. It is designed with a walk-around balcony that overlooks a large checker board room filled with checker pictures and memorabilia.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.
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