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As coastal region recovers, Stone reports strong growth

Wiggins — As the first county north of the coastal Harrison County, Stone County has been an area that seemed to be at a disadvantage competing for new economic development.

Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape. And now the Stone County Economic Development Partnership has so many new business prospects that it is hard to keep up.

“We had a lot of people looking around and trying to decide what they wanted to do pre-Katrina,” says Russell Hatten, executive director, Stone County Economic Development Partnership. “But since Katrina, our dream has come to fruition. They have discovered Stone County. A lot of them are establishing new businesses. We are far enough away from the Coast that we don’t have the congestion. It is a heck of a lot easier to get around here. And doing business is a little less expensive up here.”

Stone County has seen several significant economic development announcements recently.

“This past week we announced Southwind Homes, a modular home factory that would employ 150 people,” Hatten said. “I have another industry located in the Stone County South Park, Mississippi Metals. Fifty people are going to be employed there producing metal roofing and metal buildings. That should be up and operating in a few weeks. And I have four other industries that have bought land in that Stone County South Park just south of Perkinston on Highway 49.”

Stone County is a great place to be an economic developer these days. But it is a pretty big workload for one operation with two employees to be working eight or nine deals at the same time.”

“We are all totally wrung out,” Hatten said. “We are working more and bigger projects.”

Another major project announced recently is Solare Solutions, LLC, a high-tech sign company which is building a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Stone County. Construction began in April with production operations slated to start June 15th for the first phase one of the multiphase construction.

Solare specializes in signage systems including architectural theming, illuminated elements, monolithic structures and custom design fabrications. The company also does large screen LED video displays, broadcast and control rooms, video systems integration and content/animation creation.

Solare is planning a $2-million investment in the plant that will be managed by Scott Andraschko, a former vice president of signage for Harrah’s and Park Place Corp. Solare said they plan to initially hire 75 to 100 workers, with the workforce growing to 250 in two years. Solare is currently accepting applications for employment at the Wiggins facility. Individuals with technical skills are encouraged to apply. The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community student employment is available through the Solare internship program. Hatten said Solare will provide high-tech jobs with pay above the average for the area.

The company will provide signs for casinos, schools, government and other customers across the country.
In addition to new industrial announcements, Stone County has seen quite a bit of population growth since Hurricane Katrina destroyed so many homes on the Coast this past August.
v“We do know every habitable residence and everything we can build gets sold,” Hatten said. “Some things we were going to tear down have people living in them now. We had pretty good residential growth pre- Katrina, but now it is incredible. As fast as we can build them, they are being sold. Any one that is reasonably priced is selling.

“Katrina didn’t really produce any more fools. While potential buyers understand there is heavy demand for houses, you can get out of the market in a hurry if your price is too inflated. People aren’t stupid. They will find out what the market will bear on houses.”

Part of the attraction to Wiggins is higher ground not subject to storm surge, and enough inland that the hurricane winds aren’t as strong. But Hatten says a good quality of life is also important. “We try to keep that a secret, but people are finding out about it,” Hatten said. “We have an increased population, which means a bigger tax base. So we are seeing increased spending improve what we are already have up here.”

Hatten said that crowds at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on U.S. 49 are another indicator of economic growth. The giant retailer at first was reluctant to locate in Wiggins. But now business there is booming.

“I used to be able to run in and out Wal-Mart,” Hatten said. “Now I have to stand in line at Wal-Mart and other businesses like restaurants are crowded, as well. Who thought you would ever have to stand in line to get a meal in Wiggins? Although it is a hassle, it isn’t really a bad thing, is it? Businesses are hiring more people, and are increasing wages, as well. This has a really bright side to it. We’re about quality of life, jobs, and helping people find jobs that make as much as they can.”

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


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