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Koestler leveraging location as Stone County sees growth accelerate

The new executive director of the Stone County Economic Development Partnership said she has a checkered past. By that, Charlotte Koestler means she has a variety of experience that she brings to this growing county that’s strategically situated between Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast.

Koestler has been in Stone County since April 2. She came from her native Vicksburg where her family has lived since the river city’s founding. She attended parochial schools there before earning a general business degree from the University of Mississippi.

“Growing up in Vicksburg, my family was always involved in the community,” she said. “My grandfathers were early influences on me. One was a baker, and the other had an insurance and casualty company. They taught me responsibility, and I was trained to do business in the community and give something back to the people there.”

But Koestler, who said a life change has caused her to recycle and use the family name, has also lived in Memphis and Dallas where she worked in several professions. Those included development, financial services, real estate, a software company and teaching. After earning a master’s degree from the University of North Texas, she taught at a community college.

Four years ago, she came back to Vicksburg where she served as director for the Vicksburg-Warren County Community Alliance. “It was a wonderful job. I produced commercials for them and expanded their annual trip to Washington to include meetings with more officials,” she said.

Feeling she had taken the position as far as she could, Koestler went out on her own as a consultant. She worked on Blueprint Mississippi and on a housing needs assessment grant after Hurricane Katrina along with teaching at Hinds Community College.

“One day, I got up and thought, it’s 11 o’clock and I’m still in my pajamas, freelancing,” she said. “I heard Stone County was looking for someone and it seemed like a good opportunity. It’s a happening place and coming here was a great decision on my part.”

Koestler said Stone County and the town of Wiggins are in a growth pattern. She finds it easy to market with its assets — the location on busy U.S. 49 between Hattiesburg and the Coast, a railroad and a big community college.

“Because of my background and experience, I tell people I’ve been in economic development all my life,” she said. “Taking this job wasn’t a big leap.”

The new director is a fan of the Gulf Opportunity Zone legislation and spends time explaining it to business owners. “The clock is ticking and we’re actively working to make sure the message about it is out there,” she said. “We are using it in Stone County.”

She finds working with the Gulf Coast Economic Development Alliance in regional efforts beneficial. Thinking regionally, Stone County is targeting the same sectors — aerospace, geospatial, marine industries and polymers and plastics — as the Alliance.

“Additionally, we are targeting the housing industry, retail businesses and suppliers for the new steel mill in Alabama,” Koestler said. “I’m proud to sell Mississippi and Stone County. We have a lot to offer and people should stop and take stock of what we have.”

Horizon, a huge housing development, is underway in Stone County and is something that Koestler said will change the county that has already grown from a population of 14,000 to 18,000 since Hurricane Katrina. She witnessed a similar housing development in the Dallas area.

“We’re a rural county that’s getting ready to grow and we are preparing to accommodate that growth,” she said. “Our challenges are to provide more infrastructure, zoning and planning and downtown revitalization in Wiggins.”

She said community leaders are addressing these issues and are using a federal grant to build a new wastewater facility.

Koestler has had a couple of surprises since moving to Wiggins. One is that 600,000 people visit nearby Flint Creek Park between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a source of potential for the county.

“The other is the most charming thing,” she said. “On Wednesday afternoons, the city closes down and locally-owned businesses close. It’s an old tradition, and I’m afraid it will go the way of the world.”

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


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