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Crunching the numbers

I moved my office to Highland Colony Parkway about six months ago. I wasn’t among the mass exodus from Jackson. Instead, I moved from Clinton. It was simply a matter of being more convenient for my clients — just a good business move.

In the time I’ve been here, the growth along the parkway has been astounding. Few weeks go by without a new groundbreaking. Office buildings and churches have been the mainstay of this route, but, now, retail and restaurants are popping up. The announcement that Merrill Lynch and Cellular South would be moving out here sent Jackson reeling. How could these two giants abandon ship? While everyone pondered the myriad of reasons for the change, it came down to one thing. It was just a good business move.

I’ve been crunching numbers on data for Mississippi counties. What leads to economic growth, and is there anything that we can do, policy-wise, to help in the process? I threw in variables like per capita income, median age, median educational status, spending on education and even ACT scores of the local school districts. I used sales tax as a proxy for economic growth, and, time and again, the only thing that seemed to matter was population.

It makes sense. Business follows population. When families began moving out of Jackson proper and headed for the suburbs, business followed. Jackson’s population has been declining, along with its business base. While you may produce a long laundry list of reasons for the decline in Jackson’s business base, it comes down to one reason. The businesses are following their customers. To do otherwise would be foolish.

Look for pockets of population explosion, and you’ll find a business explosion, as well. The bigger question is, “What causes shifts in population?” Desegregation in the 1970s led to white flight to the suburbs. During this time, the City of Clinton doubled in size. But white flight was followed by black flight, as families of all ethnicities made the choice to leave Jackson. Rankin County has maintained its racial mix over the last 10 years, despite the tremendous growth. That means black families must be moving there, as well. Look around Madison County, and you’ll see a diverse group of people.

Of course, with the population shift has come the reality of those left behind. Many of the families who remain in Jackson cannot afford to leave. Notice, I said, “many,” not all. Certainly, there are those who choose to stay. When you are left with a large proportion of your population under the poverty level, it’s not surprising that your crime rate will rise. So, does the crime rate cause people to leave Jackson, or does the fact that people are leaving Jackson result in a rise in crime statistics? It’s a head-scratcher.
While there’s no doubt that high crime rates compound the problem, are they the event that set this change in motion?

I’m a big fan of Jackson. I’ve long held on to hope for our Capital City, but the reality of all that is occurring around me is causing me to rethink my ideas. I used to think of Jackson as the center of a wagon wheel. The cities surrounding it were the spokes, connected to the strong, central structure. How could Brandon, Clinton, Madison, et al, survive without a vibrant Jackson? Surely, it would not be possible.

The reality is that it is happening. The outlying areas are thriving, while Jackson falls into disrepair. Now, I think of the area like a doughnut, a big circle of nothing surrounded by rich, sugary dough.

Did this happen because of our old nemesis “race?” Did this happen because of the crime rates in Jackson? While these may have played a part in the transition, it seems clear that it’s all about shifting populations.

During my growing-up years, families moved to the suburbs in droves. We lived in big residential communities and traveled into town to go to work. But the technological changes have meant a different way of working. We don’t need to be at the epicenter any longer. We can sit in our office at home or in a coffee shop sipping on a latte and attend to all our tasks. It’s a different world, and, maybe, the current population shifts have as much to do with this change as anything else. Now, we just want convenience, so we’re going back to the old model… live, work and shop all in the same location.

So, how does Jackson, policy-wise, stem the tide? Forget about constant press releases about the perception problem of crime. Don’t really even worry about the school system. Don’t waste your time chasing businesses… begging and cajoling for their presence. Just get people back into town.

You can do it through cool, funky residential areas, with which the suburbs can’t compete. Just look at Fondren. You can offer downtown living in historic buildings. You can showcase your historic homes. Who doesn’t love Belhaven? You can convince people that the doughnut has at its center a delicious jelly filling.

Population shifts don’t happen overnight, and reversing them takes monumental effort. But instead of chastising businesses for following their customers, Jackson should be building the customer base. Crime rates and education issues will take care of themselves. More importantly, business will follow.

Nancy Lottridge Anderson, CFA, is president of New Perspectives Inc. in Clinton. Her e-mail address is nanderson@newper.com, and she’s online at www.newper.com. Her column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal.

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