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Population estimates may be ‘crap shoot’ but numbers vital

Since Katrina the population estimates of the Mississippi Gulf Coast have been, as one researcher put it, a crap shoot. It is difficult to get accurate estimates in a region where there is still great movement in and out as people move from FEMA trailers back into renovated homes, give up and leave the state — possibly for hurricane-free zones inland — or move to the Coast to take a job at a newly opened casino or other business.

Accurate population estimates are hard to come by, especially for the hardest hit areas such as Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Pass Christian and Long Beach. And that presents a problem because good demographic information is vital to economic development.

‘Uncertainties in every angle’

Dr. Ed Ranck, associate director for the University of Southern Mississippi’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said it goes both ways: The economy is affecting the population. And the population is affecting the economy.

“There is a shortage of housing, and there are job opportunities that are not here any more,” Ranck says. “People have been displaced and haven’t returned. On the other hand, there are shortages of labor. For those people whose jobs are related to population, whether retail clerks, physicians or dentists, there is probably uncertainty whether their clients are coming back. The whole thing is very interwoven and there are uncertainties in every angle of the economy. Population is just one of those indications. Employment is another. Dwelling units are another.”

There is something of a catch-22 at play. People looking for work can find jobs on the Coast. But it is harder to find a place to live, especially in the affordable range. Apartment rents have escalated on average a couple hundred dollars per month, and few affordable homes are left for sale.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals who have left the area because so many of their clients moved away. Schools have been closed and consolidated. Some people have been made whole by the state’s homeowner grant program that provided funds for people who had homeowner’s insurance but no flood insurance to rebuild. Others, particularly those who had the least to begin with, didn’t qualify for the grants because they didn’t have homeowner’s insurance or didn’t own their home.

“I think it will take a long time for the Coast to sort itself out,” Ranck says. “We have insurance issues and housing availability issues. The market will solve most of the problems, but the Coast may not look like it looked before the storm.”

While he is optimistic, Ranck thinks it is going to take a long time for the Coast to recover.

Much more difficult

All populations are changing every day. The biggest problem is figuring out how and how much. That was made much more difficult by Katrina, says Dr. Frank Howell, a demographer who is a professor of sociology at Mississippi State University.

“Something on the order of a Katrina wrecks havoc in the reliability of our estimates, for sure,” Howell says. “It is difficult to really assemble estimates at all in the short run because all the social systems by which we track people have been wiped out or disrupted for a period of time. Things like employment rolls and local birth and death registrations are severely disrupted. To use the gaming metaphor, it is a little bit of a crap shoot, particularly in the short run, after something like Katrina.”

And there are opportunities for doing things better. While no one wanted the devastation, a lot of good ideas were put forth during the planning charrettes held after Katrina by the Governor’s Commission.

“It is a sad but true scenario that something like Katrina, given it has happened, gives us a chance to change some things,” Howell says. “Normally we don’t just stop and fix things before something bad happens, like the bridge that recently collapsed in Minnesota. While something like Katrina is very sad, it is an opportunity to rebuild things better. That was the governor’s argument after Katrina. That makes the case for public officials to be ever vigilant and stay the course.”

Public officials, he says, will have to be “Johnny one note,” focusing on the recovery instead of moving on to new topics that seem more politically exciting. Howell believes it will take staying the course for at least five years to bring the Coast back strong.

“I was at the Beau Rivage a few months ago, and there is concrete and steel going up in lots of places,” Howell says. “But other things have not moved forward. You have development in real estate for condos, but not as much going on in some other areas. There are a lot of things in play right now, but I think the jury is out for the five-year window. It doesn’t mean you cross your arms and wait. It means spending day-to-day and week-to-week following the course with public officials engaging the private sector.”

Good population estimates are important to businesses considering locating in the area. Another major factor is the state’s political clout. There are concerns that if the Coast population doesn’t rebound by the next Census in 2010, it could cost the state a congressional district.

“That is a concern,” Howell says. “And if others from outside look at the market on the Coast and see consistent ongoing activity, there is a bit of ‘me too’,” people saying they need to get in that market. But if there is a lull and people go back to other things, if others from the outside see complacency, it could get in the way of recovery. We could lose political clout and political focus if folks from the outside see a declining interest in rebuilding, and there is not a ‘me too’ attitude about investing in rebuilding.

“You can look to New Orleans to the west, and get a general image of malaise or complacency. The French Quarter is back open, but a lot of other areas are not. Here we are more oriented toward hammering and nailing. We are not competing with New Orleans to rebuild, but the entire Gulf Crescent is competing for tourism dollars.”

What happens on the Coast has big implications for the entire state.

“It is an incredibly important part of the state,” Howell said. “It is the bookend to the impact of the suburbanization that Memphis has generated on the north end of the state. When people move from somewhere else in the country to Memphis, I think they take a hard look at living in Mississippi. The impact of Katrina will be if we don’t stay the course and don’t get back in economic saddle. The Gulf Crescent a very important part of national development, and Mississippi’s role in that Crescent has been made important. For the state’s future, it is very important. In the long run, it is as important as the auto plants that have located elsewhere in the state.

“Mississippi is at a point with its highway program development where we are reaping the benefits. If the Coast doesn’t come back and stay the course rebuilding, then it will lose that momentum and the national development dollars will be less likely to come in.”,

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

About Becky Gillette

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