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Labor force study in works

Southwest Mississippi sees new residents, opportunities

The counties of Southwest Mississippi are on the move with new residents resulting from Hurricane Katrina, innovative approaches to attracting industry and a strong regional partnership that’s conducting a labor force study.

The 10-county partnership has contracted with Pathfinders of Dallas to do a labor study to survey employers and employees, according to president Bob Smira of Lawrence County.

“The survey will look at the education and training levels needed, commuting patterns, and what salary it takes for people to move from job to job,” he said. “We don’t think economic development stops at the county borders, so we’re including the five Mississippi counties and seven Louisiana parishes that border our partnership counties. We’re developing a good working relationship with them.”

The Southwest Mississippi Partnership includes the counties of Adams, Amite, Claiborne, Franklin, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Pike, Walthall and Wilkinson.

‘Good tool for developers’

Smira says the partnership is trying to do a shoestring version of what’s been done in other parts of the state with regional studies. They hope to complete it by mid October.

“It will be a good tool for developers to show location consultants. It will show what we need to do to upgrade our training and education,” he said. “It’s a qualified sample and will be a marketing and planning tool for us.”

He said the group wants to be able to stand behind the numbers and needs to get a handle on the area’s labor force, strengths and weaknesses.

“Even if Katrina hadn’t happened, we would have needed to do it anyway, but we need it more so now,” he said. “Several counties are having population growth.”

Britt Herrin says Pike County where he serves as executive director of the Economic Development District has more than 5,200 new residents.

“A population migration study shows there are well over 17,000 new residents in a 20-mile radius of Pike County and I think there will be more,” he said. “It’s incredible. Every day someone comes to my office wanting to relocate.”

Although he feels bad that the misery of a hurricane is making Pike County grow, he says people are making the choice to relocate. He sees some working people building second homes there for their future retirement.

While there are few houses left for sale, many are being built in the area with retirees making up the largest trend. That influx is bringing about new retail. Herrin says much of that is taking place in McComb near the Delaware Avenue and Interstate 55 interchange. A new hotel, restaurants and several chain stores are looking at the location.

“We see retail sales increasing, too, and lines at the stores,” Herrin said. “The retirees are fueling that growth, plus we’re working with several industries such as Summit Plastics and Seego Lumber on expansions.”

For many years Walthall County has been the state’s leading dairy county. Now down to 36 working dairies, that industry is still the county’s leading industry with a yearly value of $12 million. Forestry follows with a yearly value of $8 million.

Pam Keaton, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Foundation, says Walthall County has two available industrial buildings. One, with 60,000 square feet of space, is the only Class A facility in Southwest Mississippi.

“We’re trying to increase awareness of that building,” she said. “The county supervisors invested in the facility to create jobs and we’re spending money to market the area and our facilities.”

Keaton also says the county has definitely had an increase in population due to Katrina. “Home sales are good and some are investing in land,” she said.

Promoting tourism

Amite County is pushing tourism as an avenue of industrial growth, according to Rick Stratton, the mayor of Liberty. The town developed a 288-acre park with a covered rodeo arena, 36 camp sites with full hookups, and a complex of four softball fields. Nearby Wilkinson County went in with them and other counties may join next year.

“It’s a nice park and fields. We had our first league this year and tournaments for different ages,” he said. “Sometimes we have 500 to 600 there on Tuesday nights and that’s a lot in a town of only 700. We could possibly have 30 to 40 teams next year.”

Stratton, who is also the publisher and editor of The Southern Herald, a weekly newspaper that’s been in his family for 120 years, says he’s talking to a couple of companies about locating in the area and is hoping motels will build there. In the meantime, area residents work at a sawmill and local industries that include Air Cruiser, U.S. Metal and Freedom Industries.

As executive director of the Lawrence County Community Development Association, Bob Smira is working on new retail and manufacturing prospects. One is a plastics manufacturer that would begin with 35 employees. He is also relieved that the December buyout of the Georgia-Pacific mill by Koch Industries has not had the dire effect anticipated. The large linerboard mill was built in the mid 1960s and employs 550 people.

“The mill will remain here and the new owners want it to be more efficient. Everyone around here was worried about the impact to the economy and who would lose jobs,” he said. “A number of salaried employees took retirement, and it won’t have as much of an impact as was thought.”

The U.S. 84 four-lane bypass around Monticello, the county seat, is causing the town to take a look at commercial activity in the area.

“I’m working with them to develop methods of attracting shoppers to downtown and to develop more retail around the bypass,” he said. “In general, we’re pleased with the activity we’ve had even though we’re not on an interstate. We’re making our own opportunities.”

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

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