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Top 10 national ranking boosts confidence of Gulf Coast recovery

The Gulfport-Biloxi Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) recent ranking in the Forbes Top 10 list of fastest-growing small metro areas in the country is one of the nicest presents a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina could have. It also doesn’t hurt that the Mobile MSA ranked number one on the list, boding well for the economic future of the entire region.

The Gulfport-Biloxi MSA, which includes the counties of Harrison, Hancock and Stone, is expected to grow in gross metropolitan product by 23.12% between 2007 and 2001, with population expected to increase by 17%.

“It’s no secret that the Southeast and Western United States are booming,” said the January 30 article in Forbes “America’s Fastest-Growing Metros.”

Sitting pretty

While Jackson County wasn’t on the Forbes list, it is sitting pretty positioned between Mobile and Biloxi.

“Technically, Jackson County wasn’t included in that designation because we are part of the Jackson-George County MSA,” said George L. Freeland Jr., executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation.

“But nevertheless, the ranking is significant in that it highlights and to my way of thinking validates our ongoing efforts to work regionally to develop this economy,” Freeland said.

Economic developers from the coastal counties of both states collaborated to market the region at the Paris Air Show this past July, and will be back at the Farnborough International Air Show in Great Britain this summer.

“Those are just some examples of multi-state Gulf Coast region collaboration that has been ongoing,” Freeland said. “So this ranking highlights but more than that validates our focus and ongoing effort to work as a coastal region and economy that transcends the state lines and those political boundaries.”

Striking contrasts

For a region still faced with major challenges left in Katrina’s wake, the top ranking was a shot in the arm. Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, said the contrast is striking between massive destruction two and half years ago and the bright economic future seen now.

“But this has not happened by mere chance,” Sanderson said. “It is a direct result of clear leadership on many different levels, both public and private, the character and commitment of our people and the unwavering belief that this will be one of the best places in the world to live and work. The Forbes ranking shows that others believe in this, also.”

Sanderson said the ranking has caught the attention of market analysts and investors.

“I think it will cause many people to take a closer look at our region and realize that it makes good business sense to invest here,” he said. “Investment opportunities in the GO Zone continue to be attractive particularly with tightening markets in most other areas of the nation.”

Affordable housing

One of the biggest obstacles to recovery from Katrina has been a dearth of affordable housing, which is tied to the lack of affordable insurance. The Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation and Northrop Grumman are beginning a pilot program called REACH Mississippi to provide affordable housing to the workforce of South Mississippi.

“Through employer-provided down payment or rental assistance and matching grants from the Renaissance Corporation, qualifying employees will be able to reduce the gap produced by high insurance rates and construction costs,” Sanderson said. “Insurance continues to be a tenuous issue. We’ve begun to see good results from the Wind Pool reform legislation passed last year. Policyholders have more options within the Wind Pool to reduce their premiums and fortify their homes and businesses from future disasters.”

The private market has shown some softening with commercial rates, and Sanderson said he anticipates more availability and affordability for residential rates.

Strong, resilient workforce

Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said the high ranking shows just how strong and buoyant the Coast and its workforce are despite the tremendous odds the area has had to overcome.

“That will speak as a testament to how dedicated and focused we have been in the recovery effort,” Barnett said. “A ranking like this gives us one more bragging right when promoting the Gulf Coast as a place to live and do business.”

When evaluating a metro area in terms of growth, several factors are taken into consideration. These include infrastructure, the number of college graduates that live in the area, quality of life, increases in housing development and personal income growth.

“The Coast possesses each of these characteristics, all of which makes it very marketable,” Barnett said.

The GO Zone deadline for the 50% depreciation tax deduction has been extended through December 31, 2010. Barnett said while this definitely provides incentive to do business along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the depreciation is something that interested developers should discuss with their CPA, as each company’s tax structure is different.

Quality of life

Barnett said the quality of life along the Coast is constantly improving.

“From the growing number of new and returning restaurants and hotels, to shops and art shows and seafood festivals, from the improvements that are underway in the downtown areas and on Highway 90, to the restoration of historic places such as Beauvoir, the Coast has so much to offer,” he said. “Not the least of which is our beautiful beach, which is truly one of our greatest assets.”

In Stone County, located just north of Harrison County, several large residential developments are in the works. Charlotte Koestler, executive director of the Stone County Economic Development Partnership, said residential growth is being driven by the availability of large tracks of undeveloped land where developers can come in and create subdivisions and neighborhoods.

Another factor helping Stone County is that insurance rates and land prices are lower. And Koestler said some people feel more secure farther off the Coast when a hurricane strikes.

Hancock County received the worst of the damage from Hurricane Katrina, but is progressing well on the road to recovery, said Jack Zink, executive director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.

“The county is much further along than some might have expected,” Zink said.

Mike Turner, director of economic development for the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, said the high ranking in Forbes came as no surprise.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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