The growth boom that began several years ago in Hattiesburg continues. The strategically located Forrest County city spills into two counties, sits at the intersection of busy Interstate 59 and U.S. 49, and is an easy drive from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
An additional growth spurt came immediately following Hurricane Katrina when evacuees fled there and some permanently relocated. Because the city’s infrastructure stayed in tact, it was used as a staging area for relief and rebuilding efforts.
Gwen James with Coldwell Banker Realty has been in the real estate business in the area for 32 years. She says the housing frenzy that immediately followed Katrina has slowed but not stopped.
“We were having great residential sales before the hurricane, and that is continuing. So far, home sales for 2007 are as good as they were for 2006,” she said. “The influx of people after Katrina dispersed the hot residential locations to more areas, and we don’t see that slowing down.”
Angie Godwin, executive director of the Area Development Partnership, says her organization is trying to put a label on the growth that includes real estate, retail, industrial and medical.
“It’s sort of a bundled experience that’s going on here,” she said. “Our medical community has grown, and that brings people from 18 counties. The synergy of all these things is coming together, and we have divers retail with something for all price ranges.”
Godwin says Hattiesburg has 464.7 physicians for every 100,000 people in the area. That compares to an average of only 167 physicians for every 100,000 people nationally.
“We have a concentration of services and specialties, and that has tended to energize other segments of the economy and fueled our growth,” she added. “We have something for everyone.”
She estimates that 6,000 people relocated to Hattiesburg as a result of Katrina and that the city recruited some professional evacuees. “We had somewhat of spike in new residents, but that had been going on before the hurricane,” she said.
In addition to the medical community and influx of new residents, Hattiesburg is home to two universities — the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and William Carey University — and has branches of two community colleges. There are 26,000 post-secondary students in the three counties making up the Area Development Partnership.
“The students have tremendous buying power,” Godwin said. “Both universities are focused on creating venues for students to stay in town, and they are not as much commuter campuses as before.”
The city is experiencing steady retail growth and has two to three ribbon cuttings for new businesses each week. “The economy is solid in the summer and gets busier in the fall when many students return to the universities,” she said.
Jason Townsend is a new retailer to Hattiesburg and plans to open Play It Again Sports in the Turtle Creek Crossing shopping center in January. He gained experience working for Johnny Miller at Play It Again Sports in Jackson and saw a need for the national franchise in Hattiesburg.
These sporting goods stores sell used sports equipment and new items. Townsend says his 3,000-square-foot store will be packed with used and new things for the many popular sporting activities in the area.
“I was looking for a business venture and feel the area needs this type of store more than another restaurant,” he said. “With the influx of people into the area and all the kids playing sports, I know people have a lot of sports stuff in their closets they want to sell.”
Dr. Eddie Holloway, dean of students at USM, expects an increase in the number of students for the fall semester. According to Kristi Motter, associate vice president for enrollment services, there were 15,676 students in the fall of 2006 and 14,427 for the spring 2007 semester. She will not have figures for fall 2007 until after the 10th day of classes.
“We’re poised for growth. We plan for it and are open to suggestions,” Holloway said. “We hope when people see Hattiesburg, they see USM.”
The university lies within the city and has a small campus that can be walked in twelve minutes. The dean says that smallness forces the school to plan carefully.
“We are trying to acquire property contiguous to the campus and are constantly in a growth pattern,” he said.
New multi-family complexes being built in the city will help ease the crunch of student housing, and new retail is also welcomed by students.
Godwin says the area is managing the demands of growth, but is always working to upgrade the infrastructure of water lines, sewers, streets and curbing.
“We also have transportation needs that continue to be a priority, and we concentrate on the quality of life and beautification,” she said. “Job growth continues and we’re most pleased with expansions of existing companies because that’s quite a compliment to our community.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.