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Counties off Coast see post-Katrina silver lining in development

While the hurricane winds of Katrina caused damage far inland including the southern Mississippi counties north of the coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson, those inland counties have prospered in the three years since the storm as new residents and businesses sought areas more secure from hurricane damages.

“The black cloud of Katrina turned out to have a tremendous silver lining for the county,” said Charlotte Koestler, executive director, Stone County Economic Development Partnership. “It has brought growth. Growth was probably going to come anyhow, but now because of Katrina, growth is coming faster. It moved the timetable up. Katrina was the catalyst for the growth.”

The population of Stone County was 14,000 pre-Katrina. Now, it is estimated at 18,000. There has been an impetus to move to high ground, and the area will be even more attractive once $39 million worth of wastewater and water system improvements provided by a federal grant are installed. That is in addition to grants for a new water well and water tower.

Koestler said while the county had rural water associations, it didn’t have rural wastewater treatment systems. That is expected to pave the way for major residential and commercial growth.

“This money is being used to create a backbone, which will allow for growth and economic development,” Koestler said. “And anytime you build new infrastructure, it helps existing residents and businesses as well.”

The increased population is bringing new commercial development. A new 80-room Hampton Inn with meeting space and an outdoor pool is under construction in Wiggins. And a developer plans to add 700,000 square feet of retail space across U.S. 49 from the Wiggins Wal-Mart Supercenter with some multi-family housing planned behind that.

“We need more apartment housing in Stone County,” Koestler said.

Stone County also has a new K-12 Christian private school that has opened this year, and is seeing growth of existing businesses as well as new businesses in the area. There is also the 4,500-acre Horizon planned community development that has been announced, but which has been on the backburner while wastewater and water treatment systems are planned and permitted.

And while no one wants another storm, Stone County is now much better prepared for a natural disaster than pre-Katrina. The county is getting two new shelters and a number of power generators.

George County

George County has also seen population growth from people relocating after Katrina, although probably not as much as in Stone County.

Mike Smith, president of the George County Economic Development Foundation, said there have been some new retail businesses open since Katrina, and there are some new subdivision developments that have started.

But those have been slow to get off the ground, which he attributes to the current slowdown in the economy.

Some new residents have been attracted by lower insurance premiums than on the Coast. But wind insurance premiums have also increased in George County.

George County may end up having a far greater impact from new developments planned in neighboring Mobile County, Ala., than from Katrina.

The German company ThyssenKruppp AG is planning a $3.7-billion steel mill in Mobile County that is expected to employ 2,700 people. And Northrop Grumman has joined with EADS to compete for a $30-billion Air Force tanker contract that would require 2,000 workers.

“Depending on what happens with the Air Force tanker project, that will have some impact on this county,” Smith said. “I think George County will see some growth from the steel mill and tanker projects, hopefully both industrial and commercial type growth. Once Highway 98 gets completed in Alabama, it will be a relatively short drive to where the steel mill will be located.”

Pearl River County

The population explosion seen in Pearl River County after Hurricane Katrina has slacked off a bit. But new residents, especially those from the South Louisiana area, continue to locate in Picayune, Poplarville and rural parts of Pearl River County, said Glade Woods, president of the Partners for Pearl River County and Partners for Stennis.

“The population of Picayune is not quite doubling like we thought it would, but the increase in population is significant,” Woods said. “We are still entertaining new business and industry ventures. People want to open new manufacturing plants, and are still looking at this as a growth and development area. There are still concerns and issues about how the cities of Picayune and Poplarville and the county stay ahead in building the roads, sewage systems and drinking water systems where they need to be to handle the growth. Everyone is working ahead on a plan in that direction.”

Around Hattiesburg

Farther off the Coast in the Hattiesburg area, population growth from Katrina has slowed. Initially there was a spike in real estate values and demand for housing to rent or purchase. That has diminished now with an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 residents more than pre-Katrina in the metropolitan statistical area of Forrest, Perry and Lamar counties.

Dr. Angie Godwin, president of the Area Development Partnership, said the greatest probable long-term value is the visibility that the Hattiesburg area received from serving as the hub for disaster relief operations after Katrina.

“It brought lots of people into our community who used it as a holding ground until they could move back to the Coast,” Godwin said. “Companies came here and used Hattiesburg as a platform to do work on the Coast. So, it gave us a lot of exposure. There is a whole population of folks who know more about Hattiesburg and the strength of our community than they knew before.”

Godwin said the area was already in a steady, strong growth pattern prior to Katrina. While there was a blip of increased growth after Katrina, that has balanced back to where it was before the storm.

“We do have an increased presence of certain types of companies like building suppliers and construction-related companies,” Godwin said. “Manufacturers and companies saw the value of being in our area because of the proximity to so many markets.”

Jones County

In neighboring Jones County, one positive impact of Katrina and the recovery is that county residents and businesses are much better prepared in case of another tragic occurrence like Katrina, said Mitch Stennett, president, Economic Development Authority of Jones County.

“We have plans in place to do what’s necessary,” Stennett said.

Jones County saw a “bounce” in renovation and construction after Katrina, and it was very evident because of the shortage of contractors and skilled carpenters, brick-layers, etc.

“Most businesses and many residents built back better than before, so that added more ‘bounce’ to the economy,” Stennett said. “Of course, Jones County continues to be the fourth or fifth best in the state unemployment ranks, with rates lower than the state’s and generally lower than the nation’s.”

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

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