Bubble? Slowdown? Pine Belt defies national trends

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Published: November 6,2006

As one real estate agent put it, you would have to be on the Planet Zog to have not heard that there has been a slowdown in sales of new homes across the country. But the Pine Belt region, which is home to thousands of residents who fled southern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi because of Hurricane Katrina, seems to be immune to the housing slowdown.

Joe M. Johnson, president and owner, Howard Johnson Properties, Laurel, said the current wave of new home construction in the Laurel-Jones County area is the best he has seen since the oil boom in the 1970s.

“I don’t know if it is money people got from Hurricane Katrina, or people just wanting to upgrade,” Johnson said. “Howard Technology Park is certainly an attraction. People are anticipating a lot of jobs there. Howard Industries has been operating all open. The economy is good. People doing better economically want a new house. There is a demand for newer homes. We need more people to build houses.”

Johnson said there is a big demand for construction workers — everyone from bricklayers to good carpenters.

“There is just not enough of them for the demand,” he said.
“We keep seeing all the downtrend commented on in the news, and we just aren’t seeing it here,” said Michele Cox, chief financial officer, Tillery Properties, LLC, Laurel. “We have not noticed any downturn in our economy in Jones County.

Ours is still booming.

“We have a couple of different markets we are currently building for. One is the smaller 1,400- to 1,600-square-foot range with some land with it in the $150,000 range. Then there is the 2,000 and up square feet market over $200,000. We are selling them as fast as we can build them. Well before they are finished, they are sold.”

A particularly popular area is South Jones County. The Howard Technology Park is only a mile or two away, and people can live in South Jones County and have an easy commute to either Laurel or Hattiesburg.

“We have seen a good number of people move in from Hattiesburg,” Cox said. “A lot are locals who don’t want to pay Oak Grove prices.”

Oak Grove is located in Lamar County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. There are 30 to 35 subdivisions under construction in Lamar County alone, says Ron Tharp, research manager for the Area Development Partnership.

“The housing market here has been phenomenal,” Tharp said. “I think overall we are seeing a rapid growth in the entire Hattiesburg economy, and housing growth is a component of that. We have also seen phenomenal growth in retail sales.”
Sales of new homes in the Hattiesburg area were 1,373 through September of this year compared to 1,207 for the year previous, an increase of about 13.8%.

Lamar County Administrator Chuck Bennett said the amount of housing growth in Lamar County is unbelievable.

“We have two 1,000-lot subdivisions we know about,” Bennett said. “It is incredible. It is everywhere. Sumrall is booming. The outskirts of Purvis and Midway community have quite a few new homes being constructed. They are building subdivisions in Baxterville and Lumberton. There are quite a few developments going on. We are blessed, but also with that growth comes quite a bit of responsibility. Our folks have been working really hard to try to help manage the growth and all the issues that come with that. Lamar County has approved a comprehensive plan that has already begun, which will address a lot of these issues.”

Fueling that growth is a large demand for jobs. Bennett said about 1,000 jobs in the area remain unfilled. There is such demand in construction fields that the county sometimes finds it difficult to get people to bid on jobs.

Bennett thinks Lamar County is popular because many people like rural living with a few acres for four-wheelers or horses. Land prices farther south in Pearl River County have climbed considerably with the influx of evacuees from South Louisiana. That makes Lamar County land more affordable.

Dennis Pierce, president of Dennis Pierce Inc., said the homebuilding business in the Hattiesburg area has seen a tremendous surge.

“In spec building, we were pretty much out of inventory by the end of February,” Pierce said. “The custom home business has been very brisk. We have been extremely busy. There has been some slowdown, but that is because we didn’t have anything to sell. It takes you six months to build a house.”

Pierce is involved in a half-dozen different subdivisions, and says lot sales have been stronger than ever.

“We pretty much focus our business in Lamar County,” he said. “From what I can tell there is a tremendous amount of construction going on. Things were real good in Forrest and Lamar counties before the storm. Since then we had a good many people come to this area who said, ‘To heck with the coastal area’. We had people coming in from Florida before Katrina because they had so many storms in Florida. Is it a trend or anomaly? I don’t know. I do know we are seeing more and more people coming here from the south. There are also a lot of buyers from Ohio, New Jersey, New York and California.They come to this area because of the climate and lifestyle. “

Pierce believes the best is yet to come. There are a lot coastal residents who are just now settling with insurance companies or getting grants.

“We expect the pace to stay what it is for the next 15 to 20 years,” Pierce said. “Sometimes success breeds success.”

But there are challenges especially with infrastructure: roads, highways and water and sewer systems throughout rapid growth areas of South Mississippi are overburdened keeping up with the pace of development.

“In Picayune, you can’t even set a water meter right now,” Pierce said.

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

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