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Large companies with eye on expansion, relocation run the numbers

MSAs put cities, counties on larger radar screens

Metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs — what are they? Where are they? And why do they matter?

Using Census Bureau population figures, the federal Office of Management and Budget pulls metropolitan areas together based on a large population nucleus, joined with adjacent communities that have a high degree of social and economic integration with that core. Large companies looking to expand or relocate check out MSAs, expecting to find a concentrated workforce and infrastructure to support their needs. Mississippi has five of the country’s 361 MSAs.

“It’s not a designation that can be manipulated. It’s set by the federal government,” says Gray Swoope, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “A city or county that’s part of an MSA will show up on a larger radar screen. Some companies only look at MSAs, and there’s a lot more data available to them than they will find on areas that are not large enough to be part of an MSA.”

He says those searches are getting more refined with the amount of data available these days and inclusion in an MSA is especially important to retail businesses. However, Swoope urges caution in attaching too much significance to being part of an MSA.

“Look at Columbus. They’re not in an MSA and it’s not hurting them,” he said. “Their retail is booming and they’re about to get a steel mill. If you’re not in an MSA, don’t worry about it. It won’t make or break a deal, but it gives you another development tool.”

Swoope notes the federal government’s new designation of micropolitan statistical areas that are getting looks from national companies, too. “The government recognizes these regional economies that are not large enough to be MSAs but have some similarities and a lot to offer,” he said. “Meridian is an example of a smaller regional hub.”

As the executive director of Hattiesburg’s Area Development Partnership, Angie Godwin feels being part of an MSA matters because it provides a third-party general base of knowledge. “It puts us in a category for industrial recruitment or retail development that requires a critical mass of population and infrastructure,” she said. “It helps us make a cut.”

With Hattiesburg as the core city, the MSA includes three surrounding counties for a population of 137,000. Godwin says the area had an influx of 20,000 people after Hurricane Katrina that is not reflected in the census of 2000.

“More expansion is following on a steady, if not steep, path of growth,” she said. “We’re leading the formation of a plan to put housing, workforce and projections into place. We have to make good, solid decisions based on a plan.”

Regionalism is the most significant driving factor in economic development at this time, and Godwin believes that is aided with the MSA designation. “We bring together cumulative strengths and can market the region,” she said. “That’s the strength of our organization.”

Part of a bigger picture

Bill Renick of Marshall County feels economic development in this North Mississippi area has benefited by being part of the Memphis MSA. “It allows us to use some workforce numbers of an MSA and gives companies a truer picture of what we have available here,” he said. “We have over a half-million people in the workforce that’s within a 30-minute drive.”

He said the county has a population of approximately 36,000 but due to its close proximity to Memphis and inclusion in that core city’s MSA, Marshall County shows up when prospects are looking for a 100,000 person workforce.

“Look at everyone trying to get automotive manufacturers who always want a large workforce,” said Renick, executive director of the Marshall County Industrial Development Authority. “Our MSA meets those criteria, if we weren’t in the Memphis service area, we wouldn’t show up in those searches.”

Marshall County is pleased with its latest economic addition, an Exel logistic warehouse. Based in England, Exel is the world’s largest third-party material handling company. Exel purchased 90 acres in Marshall County’s industrial park and built a 700,000-square-foot warehouse that employs 300 workers.

“That’s a big deal to us,” Renick said. “We hope they buy more land and expand.”

Additional opportunities

DeSoto County is also a part of the Memphis MSA, and Jim Flanagan of the county’s Economic Development Council says that inclusion affords them additional growth opportunities.

“We are still the fastest-growing county in the state and see no end to that,” he said. “We’ve already exceeded the number of building permits issued at this point last year. We average seven to eight families a day moving here.”

He said it’s a challenge to keep up, but DeSoto County is meeting needs through foresight and planning. New programs are also being implemented such as the $140 million bond issue — the largest in the state — that was passed to build new schools. School enrollments are increasing by 1,500 to 1,800 students per year.

The Jackson MSA reached a milestone with a population exceeding a half million and is the only one within the state to reach that mark. The MSA includes five surrounding counties.

“The reality is that business doesn’t concern itself with city limits or county lines,” says Jason Brookins, executive director of the Hinds County Economic Development District. “They just want to know that people will come in to an area. That’s a plus for us, and it opens it up and makes a more diverse area.”

He adds that his organization rarely talks about Hinds County by itself. Instead, they speak of the region and MSA, utilizing each other’s strengths. “Prospects want to know they have more than just the 254,000 people in Hinds County,” he said. “They look at the different opportunities in the surrounding area.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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