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Pine Belt rebounds from Katrina, sees tremendous growth

Rebounding and growth is the way Mitch Stennett, president of Economic Development Authority of Jones County, describes growth in the Pine Belt region in 2006.
The first part of the year was rebounding from Hurricane Katrina. The area saw both temporary and permanent population gains as demands for housing soared from thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who lost their homes. A combination of spending for hurricane construction repairs and from new residents dramatically increased sales.

Stennett said because of Katrina, there were increases in sales taxes and hotel occupancy taxes. Those numbers are still up.

A report posted online at www.rockinst.org/gulfgov at the one-year anniversary of Katrina shows which parts of the hard-hit region are still struggling, which are rebounding, and which are growing.

“Laurel and Hattiesburg are listed in the growing part of it,” Stennett said. “I still see a lot of Coast license plates in Hattiesburg and at some shopping centers here in Laurel. Our medical community is another sector that is really growing. And then our oil economy is just amazing. The oil companies are still trying to find additional people to work.

“Howard Industries is still growing. They will be in their new five-story office tower sometime in January or February and have mostly moved into their new computer assembly facilities at the Howard Technology Park. Howard Computers has hired more than 1,000 new employees this calendar year.”

Other existing businesses are also expanding including Howse Equipment and Wade Services. Wade recently moved from a small facility to a 20,000-square-foot building.

“Another thing that is significant is the resurgence of private-sector investments in downtown Laurel especially, but also in Ellisville,” Stennett said. “Three large historic buildings have recently been purchased in downtown Laurel and are now occupied by companies. So that has given weight to a new Main Street effort in Laurel right now. Danny Raspberry has purchased the four-story Deposit Guaranty National Bank building, and is renovating upper levels into apartments. The middle floor will house offices and bottom floor a restaurant.

“Tanner Construction purchased the Green Lumber Company building, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in the downtown. And the Sims Law Firm Building will be occupied by Denbury Resources. So it has been exciting. We are going into the new year with a lot of momentum.”

Committed to quality of life

A Katrina Recovery Task Force organized by the Area Development Partnership (ADP) in Hattiesburg met every weekday morning at 6:45 a.m. for weeks on end.
But not all the growth being seen in Hattiesburg is Katrina related, says ADP president Dr. Angie Godwin.

“Katrina might have accelerated it, but we were already in this pattern,” Godwin said. “We have really locked in a major commitment to quality of life issues. It is not just a parallel aspect of economic development. It is a core commitment.”

The Hub City continues to draw from a large trade area of 16 to 18 surrounding counties. But Godwin said what really sets Hattiesburg apart statewide and in the Southeast are medical resources. Nationally the average is 126 physicians per 100,000 population; Hattiesburg has 465 physicians per 100,000 population.

“We know that is a major draw to our community,” Godwin said.
The recent announcement of closing of the Dickten & Masch plastic injection molding plant at the Hattiesburg Industrial Park that will result in 100 people being laid off was a disappointment. But the ADP has seen strong interest in the facility from other companies.

“This was a corporate restructuring issue,” Godwin said. “We are sad about that, but we are optimistic we will have the opportunity to recruit a new company into our community that will fill that gap. We have limited industrial property available because it has been so popular.”

Godwin said Southern Miss continues to be an economic development engine for the community, working closely with the ADP in terms of recruiting issues. Currently the university has $31.5 million in federal grant funds committed to build an Innovation and Commercial Park on Classic Drive.

Surge in population

Part of Hattiesburg stretches into Lamar County, which has been exploding in population growth this year. A research company called Claritas estimates that the population of Lamar County increased by 7,363 people between August 29, 2005, and January 1, 2006. Anyone who has driven during rush hour on Hardy Street, the main east-west thoroughfare through Hattiesburg, can attest to the increased traffic congestion resulting from such a large surge in population.

Major population growth was underway before the storm, and is accelerating even more a year after the storm. Fred Hatten, president of the Lamar County Board of Supervisors, said during 2005 it added 561 residential homes to the tax rolls and the assessed value for the county increased $31 million.

“Currently for the year 2006, the number of home lots that have been formally platted and filed with the county is 521,” Hatten said. “That compares to 247 in 2005. We currently have 1,752 lots pending for filing. We have filed this year 28 subdivisions, and there are 30 subdivisions pending. That is a total of 58 between the filed and pending.

“Hardy Street, at certain times of the day it is hard to maneuver. The roads are certainly under tremendous strain, and we have a metropolitan study ongoing as a result of a committee we put together after Hurricane Katrina that is doing a full study of infrastructure needs as it relates to roads. Funding is the biggest problem.”

Lamar County has seen tremendous retail growth during the past year with $100 million in retail investments. That includes a new shopping area just west of Turtle Creek Mall called Turtle Creek Crossing. Hatten said it also has a large new medical facility that opened on Lincoln Road extension in 2006.

In the last census, Lamar County ranked as the fourth-fastest growing in the state behind Rankin, Madison and DeSoto counties.

“It has increased greatly since Hurricane Katrina,” Hatten said.

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

About Becky Gillette

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