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Population centers, largest sales tax producers

Jackson continues to dominate with the largest population and largest amount of sales taxes collected in the state. Even though there may be some fluctuations in population for some state cities, the official 2000 Census figures will remain the same for another four years.

The state collects varying amounts of sales taxes from municipalities each year, but the list of the 10 receiving the largest amounts has not changed from this time last year. The wealth among cities ranges from almost $36 million in Jackson to $254 in Eden in Yazoo County.

The trend of more populous places being the wealthiest is not likely to change, according to Darrin Webb, senior economist with the Institutions of Higher Learning.

“The long-term trend that is expected to continue is that cities and areas surrounding cities will do well,” he said. “There’s nothing to indicate that trend will change. People want to be near metropolitan areas for jobs, shopping and other amenities.”

While sales tax figures show that shopping is a major draw for the Capital City, MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce president Duane O’Neill says there’s much more. “We have a lot going for us that brings people into the community in addition to shopping. They come in from everywhere to take advantage of the variety of things here,” he said. “We’re seeing ever-expanding retail and many hot pockets of growth all over the three-county area.”

From a shopping perspective, the circle around Hattiesburg is expanding, according to Angie Godwin, executive director of the Area Development Partnership, and will continue to grow.

“Through retail analysis of five years ago, we drew from five to seven counties. Now, we’re drawing from 16 to 18 counties,” she said. “Retail follows population and population follows quality of life. A strong enough population base brings growth and more sales taxes. It’s a numbers game.”

Godwin says Hattiesburg’s focus is to move from quantity to quality or the reasons people live there. “Our goal is to lead the state in quality of life issues,” she said. “We must turn our attention to that. It may seem a luxury and fluff, but it sustains a community. Quality issues are difficult to achieve but are the easiest to erode. We have to pay attention to it.”

She lists the four pillars of strength for Hattiesburg as:

• Education — There are 26,000 post secondary students in the area and a variety of educational opportunities.

• Healthcare hub — “You would have to go to a place with almost a million population to have equal healthcare services to what we have here,” she said.

• Natural amenities — These have been retained in the area, including urban, suburban and rural.

• Cultural opportunities — Many are through the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey College and include arts groups in the community.

The city announced that more than 1,000 retiree households located there within a year. “We used to think what attracted retirees was different from what attracted other households,” Godwin said, “but we’ve learned it’s not. They are looking for those same quality of life things.”

Regional retail hubs

If it’s true that the largest populated cities attract the most sales tax revenue, there are three anomalies among the state’s top 10 sales tax producers. Listed in the top 10 are Ridgeland, Columbus and Laurel, three cities not among the highest in population. Ridgeland is part of the Jackson metropolitan area that draws shoppers statewide. What about Columbus and Laurel? Both say they are regional shopping centers.

Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp has no difficulty explaining the success of this Lowndes County municipality. “We have so much going on here. We’re very blessed,” he said. “Columbus is traditionally where people from throughout the Golden Triangle area shop.”

In addition to regional shoppers, residents of Alabama (just a few miles away), Columbus Air Force Base and Mississippi University for Women shop in Columbus. Rupp says Columbus is the largest city within a 100-mile area. The city also pulls in tourists with its antebellum homes and professional bass fishing tournaments.

“The population doesn’t take into account the people living on the base,” he said. “Our current population is 26,000. We’re looking at an annexation that will bring us to just north of 30,000 and that will put us back in the top 10 in the state.”

All in all, things are looking up for this northernmost county included in the federal Gulf Opportunity Zone. The mayor says they’re poised to grow. “We have a couple of malls and hoping to get more with the advent of SeverCorr,” he said. “The base has about a $250-million annual impact and is expected to grow.”

Rupp points out that the downtown area of Columbus, now thriving, was boarded up and looked like many other Southern towns a few years ago. A group of businessmen bought old buildings and converted upper floors into apartments. Now there are more than 100 apartments downtown with retail and night spots to boot.

“It’s been the result of teamwork; a lot of effort by a lot of people,” he said.

The Coast, one of the state’s hottest areas for population and wealth growth, was dealt a horrendous blow by Hurricane Katrina. Webb, the state economist, predicts a tremendous re-investment there that will spur growth.

“It’s still early to tell, but my guess is that a lot more condos will be built and the casinos will rebuild,” Webb said. “I think the population will grow and increase.”

Webb thinks other urban areas of the state will also grow as businesses want to locate near a labor force that’s not available in rural areas.

“There’s nothing I see on the horizon that will change the decline in rural areas,” said Webb. “Technology is not making as much of a difference as some people thought it would. People still want the amenities of cities. That’s what’s driving the migration.”

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

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