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Economic outlook bright in South Mississippi despite hurricane

Economic development activity is booming in South Mississippi despite Hurricane Katrina — or in some instances, because of it. These are the best of times and the worst of times as counties deal with devastation and rebuilding while also embracing opportunities for growth.

Harrison and Jackson county economic development organizations are displaced from their normal offices and all three coastal counties’ organizations have many employees who lost homes. In hard hit Hancock County, Hal Walters says five of the six managers at the Port and Harbor Commission lost their home completely. The Commission is buying mobile homes for these employees.

“It’s difficult to get the community going again without having all the services back. That’s been slow although everyone is trying,” he said. “Most people plan to stay, and we even have people wanting to move to the area to help rebuild it.”

With so little housing and few services available, living there now is a challenge. Three months after the storm, many people are still living in tents. There is only one grocery store open in the county and it’s located north of Interstate 10 in Diamondhead, an inconvenience for those whose transportation was destroyed. Walters adds that residents can not buy clothes in the county or get a haircut. Still, he is optimistic.

“The outlook is grand and spirits are high,” he said. “Our opportunities are greater than they were but unfortunately we had to pay a high price for it.”

Walters, executive director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, says there are twice as many development prospects now than before the storm. While he understands the construction-oriented companies, others are difficult to understand. The county’s leadership in the polymer and aviation fields continues to grow.

“These were target industries before the storm and they still are,” he said. “We are working on two large projects now and I believe others in the Gulf Coast Economic Alliance are too. With our enormous housing problem, we will have to rely on our neighbors to the north in the alliance counties for housing.”

Industrial tenants at Port Bienville Industrial Park and Stennis Air Park are up and running. Out of one-and-a-half billion dollars in private investment at Port Bienville, there was less than $75 million in damage. Wellman Plastics will have its second line operating this month and delayed their expansion until March of next year. G.E. has all five finishing lines running at capacity. The technology park is rebuilding and will soon have water and sewer lines connected.

George Freeland says Jackson County has anxiety and a lot of people are displaced but the atmosphere is vibrant. “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been and responding to a host of inquiries,” the executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation said. “Some are a result of Katrina — building components and modular home manufacturers — and large impact projects that aren’t associated with Katrina whatsoever.”

The county is holding on to projects they were courting before Katrina and none of the prospects are backing off. Freeland says the county’s well-rounded, solid economic development program that was put in place over five years ago is now realizing dividends and will continue to do so. The plan included property development and re-development. One such property is the manufacturing facility for unmanned aircraft at the county’s airport industrial site. That facility, with up to 200 high-wage, high-tech jobs, is still on base to be complete in the first quarter of next year.

“That’s a real bright spot for us and will diversify the economic base of Jackson County,” Freeland said. “The key here is momentum and I can’t name any jobs lost in the industrial sector from the storm.”

Service sector jobs are begging to be filled, and the county’s housing base has been severely impacted. All foundation staff members lost their homes and the office was wiped out, computers and all. The organization is now housed in a trailer in the former office’s parking lot and hopes to be back in a permanent building by the end of the year.

“It’s a challenge dealing with work right now and there’s a lot of anguish,” Freeland said, “but there’s an enormous amount to feel good about that will carry us through the negative impacts of this disaster.”

Larry Barnett recently took the helm of the Harrison County Development Commission as executive director after the position was vacant for more than a year. “I feel I can make a difference,” he said. “My early career in architecture and construction helps me with prospective companies and asset management. My training and experience at Mississippi Power will help me with the marketing and economic development side of the business.”

The 50-year-old Biloxi native says his key challenges are to build an organization that works best for all stakeholders of Harrison County and to overcome the budget issues presented by Hurricane Katrina. He will target the aerospace, technology, plastics, composite materials and metal fabrication industries in an effort to create quality jobs for residents.

“We will actively seek companies outside the state that are expanding, and we will work hard to grow our existing industry base and look for complementary suppliers,” he said. “I believe the future is brighter than before.”

As a result of the storm, Barnett feels the casino and condominium sectors will outperform previous expectations.

“Combine those growth markets with growth in high-tech companies along the I-10 corridor and you get increased population, a thriving retail market, and all the other amenities of a growth economy,” he added.

He also says he will work with Walters, Freeland and others in the area to foster growth as a Gulf Coast region. “From my experience, outsiders see us as much bigger than a single county or city,” he said. “We plan to work together more times than we plan to compete against each other. My desire is that we are an example of cooperation.”

Sue Wright says George County is busier than ever fielding inquiries and meeting the opportunities that have opened up since the hurricane. New opportunities include industrial inquiries and retail development.

“We have more visibility and are impacted by people with transportation disruptions,” the executive director of the George County Economic Development Foundation said. “Before the storm, they might have thought we were too far away from the Coast, but now we’re looking at new ways to truck products to the Coast and we’re a distribution point.”

The homebuilding industry along with individuals seeking to build homes are taking a fresh look at Lucedale and George County. All of the county’s inventory of existing industrial buildings are occupied.

“We have not been able to meet the need for buildings,” Wright said. “To anticipate the continued growth of the whole six-county Coast region, we plan to aggressively pursue spec buildings. Those discussions have heightened.”

The rail spur is complete in the county’s new industrial park, and the access road built to state aid specifications is ready to be paved. These projects were bumped up to meet expansion needs.

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

About Lynn Lofton

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