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Smaller cities tack differently toward economic development

Economic development is not what it used to be, and the state’s smaller communities are catching on. They, like their larger counterparts, have evolved beyond chasing smoke stacks.

In Raymond, Civil War history is leading the charge toward tourism for economic development. “We’ve gotten a lot done on it,” said Mayor Isla Tullos. “A group of volunteers formed Friends of Raymond in 1998 and acquired 65 acres of core battlefield.”

The Raymond battlefield was the scene of part of the War Between the States’ bloody Vicksburg campaign. The mayor said the acquisition is paid for and features a 3/4-mile walking trail complete with documented signage and historical kiosks.

Raymond Chamber of Commerce director John Barbour pointed out Raymond’s tie in with Vicksburg and Natchez history for visitors to the national battlefield at Vicksburg and travelers along the Natchez Trace making a stop.

‘Heritage tourism is huge’

“Heritage tourism is huge in the United States,” he said. “We had our first battle re-enactment in 1998 and attracted about 300,000 visitors. That waked up Raymond to what we have here.”

Now, he said the Hinds County town is trying to make a name for itself. There are several antebellum homes, antique shops, three bed & breakfast inns and places to eat there now. The Raymond Country Fair that’s held the first Saturday in May includes living history displays on the battlefield.

“We’re trying to show off our Southern heritage and bring more people to town to buy gas, food and other things,” he added.

Helping industries expand, too

In Southeast Mississippi, Jasper County is fortunate to have quite a few thriving industries.

“We’ve concentrated our effort on helping our existing industries expand,” said Haskins Montgomery, director of the Jasper County Economic Development District based in Bay Springs. “Most of our industry is home owned. We continue to nurture them and they continue to grow. They’re committed to us.”

The timber industry, heavy metal fabricating, poultry processing, cabinet making and cylinder plants are among the county’s companies. Haskins said the industries have trouble getting enough skilled workers in the 18,500-population county.

“There’s a different kind of worker today,” he said. “The industries have sophisticated equipment and don’t want someone off the street using it.”

The county is trying to develop some retail business on the eastern side of the county near Interstate 59 where Haskins said the county has had a harder time attracting industry.

Active recruiting

West Point and Clay County have been trying to recruit an industry for the vacated Sara Lee property since that company closed its operation less than a year ago. Tim Climer, executive director of the county’s Growth Alliance, said there have been a number of suitors.

“We do expect it to be used, but at this time don’t know what that will be,” he said. “The facility is suited for food processing. It’s not ready for any other type industry to move in, but it is probably the number one food processing facility available in the South.”

Climer said dismantling parts of the facility to start fresh with a new tenant would not take long — a matter of months. Clay County has sites suitable for automotive suppliers and other of the state’s evolving industries.

Climer pointed to the recent growth of the International Military and Government, LLC, that performs the final outfitting of armor re-enforced mine-resistant vehicles. The skeleton crew of 30 employees that was putting together prototypes last January has grown to 660 employees at this time. Ellis Steel and Blazon Tube have each added 100 jobs, too.

“We’re doing an economic development survey,” he said. “We feel we need to promote small business development and entrepreneurship. We want to do everything well and not turn our backs on tourism. There are no easy answers. We are pushing more regional development and are strengthening our ties with Columbus Air Force Base.”

What are the assets?

As director of the Asset Development/Regional Services Division of the Mississippi Development Authority, Joy Foy works with communities to recognize and make the best use of their natural and man-made assets. She helps communities and counties for which traditional smoke stack-chasing would not work or is not part of their vision.

“For years, we thought if we weren’t bringing in smoke stacks, we weren’t doing our jobs,” she said. “They don’t work everywhere. We need diversity.”

For some places diversity includes developing residential areas around lakes where private developers make the initial cost outlay. Others are developing eco-tourism. Some are using new technology to work with natural resources such as the lignite coal in Choctaw County where a $26-million pilot project is underway.

“Clarksdale is looking at becoming a blues center with recording studios and other businesses to compliment their blues heritage,” Foy said. “Some towns are looking at the way Viking Range has made a huge investment in downtown Greenwood. The good thing is that these developments are done with private funds.”

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


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