Disaster workers, local hires give boost to metro economy

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Published: January 2,2006

Jackson — Katrina’s ill wind blew some economic gain into the Capital City with employment for local residents and increased sales for businesses. FEMA set up its base of operations for the state on Amite Street on September 17 with a total of just more than 700 employees. Some of those employees have traveled here from all over the country, but 433 locals were hired.

According to FEMA spokesperson Greg Hughes, all employees are pumping money into the local economy. “We need employees for logistics, administration and any kind of work to run an office,” he said. “Those coming from outside the state rent hotel rooms and cars and all the employees shop and eat in area restaurants. That’s in addition to dry cleaners, groceries and other needed items.”

He says it’s difficult to come up with a dollar figure of the workers’ impact but feels it is significant. There are approximately 300 people renting rooms and cars and eating all of their meals in restaurants and an even larger number grab lunch at places near the downtown office.

One of their favorite spots is Cups in the AmSouth Bank Building. “We surely have seen more people coming in from all over the country,” said manager Jeannie Smith. “We even had some Red Cross workers from Sweden who ordered our coffee from the Internet after they returned home. They said they didn’t know Mississippi had such good coffee.”

Cups even extended its business hours to better accommodate the influx of federal employees. The doors open at 6:30 a.m., and staffers serve lots of coffee, scones and serve a number of luncheon dishes before closing at 5 p.m.

“FEMA has been wonderful to us and brought a lot of people into our shop,” Smith said. “It’s nice to see lots of our Cups’ cups around town.”

Earl Gaylor, owner of the Edison Walthall Hotel on Capital Street, is also pleased with the increased business flow downtown. “We’ve been real busy,” he said. “Our room occupancy has more than doubled from the same time last year. We’ve had an emptying out for the holidays but they will come back.”

In addition to the FEMA employees, he says his 208-room hotel houses evacuees, helicopter pilots and employees of engineering and law firms from the Coast. He believes Jackson is becoming a bigger city and says that will be a boost for the hotel industry.

“Jackson has a shot here over the next few years to be a larger city if it’s done right. The additional business you can get in the hotel business by being a larger city is significant,” he said. “We’ll get more money faster for the new convention center.”

Gaylor, who’s been in the hotel business for 50 years, also sees an increase in the number of diners eating in the hotel’s restaurant. “This upswing in room occupancy and diners will remain steady for the next few months,” he said.

Lewis Slater, vice president of governmental relations for the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, says hotel rooms and meeting space are hard to find right now. “I had a firm call about a meeting in early February and they can not find any space,” he said. “Things are going well downtown with the increase of visitors and workers.”

The normal 60 hours a week

Jackson resident Rachel Malone was hired as a public affairs officer by FEMA in September. She works a 60-hour week Monday through Saturday, which is the normal procedure for a federal disaster operations office.

“The job means, hopefully over the long haul, that I will be able to help the citizens of my state recover from the worst natural disaster in our country’s history,” she said. “I feel like everyone’s heart is in helping and it’s a hands-on way to get more professional experience for me.”

Before being hired, Malone flew to Washington for an interview and could have been sent anywhere in the U.S. to work. Because of her experience in the local media market, she was sent back to Jackson. She will have the option of continuing with FEMA and being transferred when the work is finished in Mississippi. Employees hired in Jackson understand that their employment is temporary.

Hughes says the majority of both the local hires and those from out of town are temporary and that fact is made clear to them. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but we’re here as long as we’re needed,” he said.

He added that full-time FEMA employees bring their own computers and other equipment, but many technical people are hired locally to service computers and telephones. Malone is impressed with the U.S. map that has pins to show where employees live when not traveling. “They’re from all over the continental U.S. They are federal employees utilized in natural disasters,” she said. “They take some time off, go home and come back here to work.”

For that reason, she says it doesn’t feel as though she’s working at home in Jackson. “It gives me a perspective on the U.S. I’ve never worked with people of such diverse backgrounds,” she said. “It’s fascinating and helps me expand my boundaries.”

In addition to the 700-plus employees in Jackson, Hughes said FEMA has 732 people working in the Gulf Coast area with 352 of those hired locally.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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