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Population swells, business booms

Unprecedented real estate sales activity reported in Picayune

Picayune — It is well recognized that Hurricane Katrina changed the geography of New Orleans, with only 144,000 residents remaining in the city that a half million people called home prior to August 29, 2005. But Katrina has also dramatically changed the geography of South Mississippi with many of the displaced residents of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi relocating to towns like Picayune and Poplarville.

The result has been real estate sales like never seen before as a result of populations that literally doubled overnight. Pearl River County had an estimated 45,000 to 47,000 residents prior to Katrina. Today, the county’s population is estimated at 100,000 to 105,000 people, and the forecast is for 40% of those new residents to stay in the area.

“Sales are wonderful,” says Judy Pippin, a broker with RE/MAX Premier Group, Picayune. “Our sales have tripled since the storm. We have seen an increase in prices of around 10% to 15%. We are seeing more inquiries for commercial properties than we had seen prior to the storm. More businesses are considering Pearl River County and Picayune since the storm. Some are businesses from South Louisiana or the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and some are people who are seeing opportunity in the area because of the increase in population. We are also getting more investors who are considering the possibility of subdivisions.”

Most homes that were on the market have been sold, and there are few commercial properties available that haven’t already been snapped up by contracting businesses in the area for cleanup and reconstruction jobs in nearby coastal areas. Katrina threw all long-range development plans out the window. Pippin said that five-year projections, for example, were met in a short period of time. A “green” subdivision called Wildwood that preserves a lot of the land in conservation easements was planned to be developed in three phases. All three phases have sold out since the storm.

“Now you have to sit back and evaluate where the marketplace is going,” Pippin said. “There are some concerns that we have sold most of what we have, but in any market there is a certain amount of turnover. People who were considering selling but weren’t sure about it are taking this opportunity to get appreciation on their property. And it is driving some properties onto the market.”

Pippin said the county’s business environment is very good right now. Now that the county is past the early stage of storm recovery, she believes it is time to look at what the future holds, and do some serious planning to make sure the county continues to have healthy growth.

“The city and county have been very proactive planning for growth,” Pippin said. “They have handled the situation very well. But people here have had to learn how to make an adjustment with overnight growth in traffic, and things like the inconvenience of waiting in long lines in stores. People are handling it quite well. Most people are seeing this as an opportunity rather than looking at it from a negative point of view.”

‘Learning to live with it’

Mary McCullough, executive director, Greater Picayune Area Chamber of Commerce, said people have adjusted to traffic doubling overnight.

“We are learning to live with it, and know it will never go back to what it was,” McCullough said. “You have to pick your time to go to Wal-Mart, and you know traffic will be heavy after school. Even with just the 40% the government says will stay, that is still a lot more people with no improvements to roads, schools, etc.”

For the past 20 years or so there has been a trend for people from the bigger cities on the Gulf Coast to move north to Pearl River County where land and homes are more affordable, crime rates are lower, and the pace of life is slower. Because of that trend, a lot of the people evacuated from the Gulf Coast and South Louisiana to Pearl River County.

“They came to ride out the storm with relatives,” McCullough said. “Motels were full. Shelters were full. After the storm, there was so much devastation that many of these people couldn’t go home.”

Quite a few decided to settle in the county, and the result was a boom in the real estate market. While real estate agents prospered, it was also a stressful situation because so many of their clients had sad stories about losing their homes, businesses and sometimes family members and friends.
Some of the temporary residents who are not expected to stay include FEMA and disaster relief workers and contractors.

“All of these people are coming in desperately seeking places to live, as well,” McCullough said. “A lot of the disaster relief workers have gone now, but still we have FEMA, and roofing and contracting crews who are in the area. They are putting workers up anywhere they can find a place to stay. Those people have told me there is probably enough work here, working in South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to last a couple of years.”

Picayune itself had a lot of downed trees and roof damage from the storm. There are still a lot of temporary blue roofs around. But few homes were completely destroyed.

“Some of the businesses had roof damage but they were able to quickly get back into business,” McCullough said. “There are only three or four that haven’t opened back up after storm. The restaurant business is booming. I went to Subway to pick up a sandwich this week, and the line was wrapped all around the inside of the store. I don’t even try to go to any of the fast food places. Those places are packed out.”

One restaurant reports its business has doubled since Katrina. On the downside, businesses have lost a lot of employees and have had difficulty hiring replacements. The labor shortage has been attributed to a number of factors ranging from people getting better paying jobs with FEMA and in construction and tree removal businesses, to FEMA and unemployment insurance payments that make working the low-wage jobs less attractive.

“Our Wal-Mart was a 24-hour Wal-Mart, but now is open limited hours because there are not enough employees,” McCullough said. “Restaurants and quick stops don’t have enough employees. There just aren’t enough people. I grew up here, and this is the first time I have ever seen four and five columns of help wanted ads in the paper every day.”

Some people are being bussed from Picayune each day to work in New Orleans at jobs paying better-than-average wages. McCullough also speculates that many of the new residents may be drawing Louisiana unemployment if their employers’ businesses were damaged or destroyed.

McCullough expects to see a lot of businesses grow to meet the new demand.

“I think we will get a lot of new small businesses, but there just isn’t that much commercial property available,” she said. “A lot of construction companies and others have taken up what was available before the storm. So we don’t have a lot of available office and retail space. I hope there are some big chains who want to expand here.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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