Existing business expansions key part of Pine Belt’s growth

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Published: December 24,2007

The Pine Belt region encompassing Laurel, Hattiesburg and surrounding counties continued to build on the strength of existing businesses to garner strong economic growth in 2007.

One of the state’s most successful homegrown companies, Howard Industries, held an open house in April for two new facilities, a new corporate headquarters and Howard Technology Solutions building and a Transformer Substation Plant. The 200,000-square-foot Substation Plant can manufacture transformers weighting as much as 300,000 and costing up to $1.5 million. Some $40 million was invested in the plant.

The new plant opened in late 2005, but official grand opening ceremonies were delayed because of Hurricane Katrina. Company officials said the new line has been so well received that they are already planning their first expansion of this facility by adding approximately 100,000 square feet. Howard Industries is also in the midst of other expansion plans.

“Currently, they’re adding approximately 235,000 square feet in Laurel and over 100,000 square feet in Ellisville,” said Mitch Stennett, president of the Jones County Economic Development Authority. “Together, these expansions will create another 200 new jobs. Howse Implement also expanded adding another 100 jobs.”

Stennett said another highlights of the year was the announcement in November that an Australian company, Hydrodec, had chosen a location in the Laurel Airport Industrial Park for a $15-million facility that will employ 40-plus employees.

Hydrodec was a spinoff of an eight-year industrial research and development program implemented by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Australian power industry. Hydrodec has a patented technology for re-manufacturing petrochemical by-product materials and persistent organic chemicals.

Other new economic developments include the location of the Ashley Homestore Distribution Center that is under construction at the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport Business Park that is expected to employ approximately 50 people.

Stennett said two large, new subdivision developments are in the planning stages for Jones County, and another is already being developed. The Jones County School system is undergoing a $29-million refurbishment, expansion and new building program. “The Interstate S-curve project is well underway and should be completed sometime late next year or early 2009,” Stennett said. “Church expansions and new construction is going on at over a dozen churches in Jones County and at least three more have new facilities in the planning stages.”

The Hattiesburg area has also seen steady growth in many different sectors, said Dr. Angie Godwin, president of the Area Development Partnership.

“We’ve had some strong expansions,” Godwin said. “Kohler, for example, rolled off their millionth engine built in this plant. Hybrid Plastics, the only nanotechnology company in Mississippi which was recruited from California, recently had a ribbon cutting for a major expansion. They have gone to the next level with a business that has incredible potential. They have just gotten to the tip of the iceberg.”

BearingPoint, a global management and technology consulting company, which has located an office in the Cloverleaf Mall, has reached its first benchmark in its workforce, Godwin said. And two new distributions centers have announced they will locate in the area. Saddle Creek, which is a Sam’s Distribution Center, is building a facility in the Forrest County Industrial Park, and a Lowe’s distribution center has been announced in Purvis at the industrial park.

“Retail continues to grow and expand,” Godwin said. “Top anchors have moved into our market, so we have continued growth in the retail sectors. A Kohl’s department store has located at Turtle Creek Crossing, and the area continues to add additional restaurants. We also have a new Hilton Garden Inn this year.”

Overall, the largest sectors of Hattiesburg economy are healthcare and education. Godwin said the area’s economic diversity brings a lot of stability to the economy as no one sector dominates.

Currently several large new apartment complexes are under construction in Hattiesburg, which has a lot of rental housing demand from the students at the University of Southern Mississippi. Godwin said the new apartments will replace some of the older housing with better accommodations for students and others.

“As the other sectors grow such as retail and industry, it requires more housing,” Godwin said. “I think our housing base is very diversified from solid rental property to the most upscale homes. We have every extreme. Real estate sales have been strong and steady. Perhaps we are getting back more into a balance rather than the kind of buying frenzy we saw after Katrina. I think because we have such a diverse economy here, we are somewhat protected so many of the lows in the real estate marketplace. We have quite a bit of balance in our community.”

Hattiesburg was recognized as one of the Top 10 College Towns in the Nation for Adults on the May 2007 Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine Web site. Hattiesburg was chosen as one of the Top 10 college towns to retire too because of its emphasis on quality of life, arts and culture combined with excellent healthcare and a reasonable cost of living.

A major development in this college town was a new president being named at Southern Miss. Dr. Martha Dunagin Saunders was named as the first female president of one of the top three universities in the state. She is an alumnus of USM, and took over the helm of the university after serving as the first-ever female chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Former USM president Dr. Shelby Thames had a strong focus on economic development, and encouraged business spinoff developments of university research. Godwin said there has been a seamless transition from Thames to Saunders.

“The partnership relationship between the business community and the university is very strong,” Godwin said. “The programs we are involved with are continuing without interruption. The Innovation and Commercialize Park development is going along very well, and we are very pleased. This 521-acre facility on Classic Drive is in a great location and easy to access. Phase one of the park’s development is complete, and we are into phase two at present.”

Next year there will be a continuing focus on human and intellectual capital development. The Disney Institute is bringing a “Keys to Excellence Program” to Hattiesburg May 8 that focuses on leadership, management and customer service Disney style.

“We are very excited about that,” Godwin said. “The Disney Institute is what they call the business behind the magic. We’ve been invited to be the host city for the state for the Disney Institute in 2008. We hope people will take advantage of that.”

Another pillar of the community is healthcare. Godwin said the medical community growth continues.

“We have a very entrepreneurial medical community,” she said. “Physicians in our area are always looking at ways they can expand services. Our service area has 464.7 physicians per 100,000 in population. The national average is 169. The concentration of physicians in Hattiesburg is significantly above even other regional medical centers.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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