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Union County eyes next level of economic development

MEDC: Memo

NEW ALBANY — Many local residents consider Union County to be one of Mississippi’s best-kept secrets. Combining a desirable small town/rural lifestyle with a strong local economy, outstanding schools and easy access to amenities of larger, more metropolitan areas offers the best of both worlds.

The economy of Union County and New Albany is based primarily on manufacturing. New Albany is acknowledged as the birthplace of the highly regarded Northeast Mississippi furniture industry. Russian immigrant Morris Futorian established the first mass production upholstered furniture plant in New Albany in 1948. That plant, known as Stratford, is still in operation today and is Union County’s third largest employer. Numerous “children” and “grandchildren” furniture companies grew from that original Stratford plant and can be found all across Northeast Mississippi. Albany Industries and Hillcraft are two other major furniture manufacturers currently located in New Albany.

While furniture is still a major component of Union County’s economy, the community has been successful in diversifying its economy. The county’s largest employer is Piper Impact, a metal extrusion manufacturer employing over 1,000 at two facilities with a major product being automobile airbag components. Other major manufacturers are Master-Bilt (commercial refrigeration equipment) and Dynagear (automotive pistons). A Wal-Mart Grocery Distribution Center is the county’s second largest employer (approximately 750). Merit

Distribution, an affiliated trucking company, employs approximately 300. Enron, a $100-million-plus electrical generating facility, became operational in 1999. New Albany also serves as a retail trade center for the surrounding area, averaging about $2 million annually in sales tax collections. Peebles, Inc., a 134-store company headquartered in South Hill, Va., recently announced plans to open an 18,000-square-foot department store, its first in Mississippi, in New Albany’s Tallahatchie Centre. New Albany’s historic downtown remains an active retail and commercial area assisted by the award-winning Main Street Association.

Numerous recreation facilities are available. The 70-acre New Albany Sportsplex boasts 10 softball/baseball fields and two soccer/football fields and hosts numerous tournaments each year including the Junior American Legion State Tournament. The Park Along the River offers nature trails, picnic tables, and a pavilion and is a Mississippi Statewide Arboretum. The soon-to-be completed Tallahatchie Trails will connect the Sportsplex and the Park Along the River with a walking trail, bike path and a bridge across the river. The Union County Heritage Museum features local history with special exhibits on New Albany native and Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. The Magnolia Civic Center, a former movie theater, is located in downtown New Albany. These facilities enhance the quality of life for local residents and serve as a “tourism infrastructure” to attract visitors. The community is further diversifying its economy through a tourism program promoting the above attractions and special events such as the Tallahatchie Riverfest held each year on the fourth weekend of September.

The county has two excellent school systems. The State Department of Education rates New Albany Schools as Level 5, the highest possible rating, and Union County Schools as Level 4.5, barely missing a Level 5 rating. Both systems have instituted improvements since these ratings were compiled. Union County Schools have completed a major building program with new classrooms, laboratories, and other facilities constructed at each of the four campuses. New Albany voters overwhelmingly approved a $9.85 million bond issue in March to construct a new elementary school and to renovate the middle school and high school. Higher education is also available to Union County residents through the nearby University of Mississippi, Blue Mountain College, and Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Few cities of New Albany’s size can boast of a better health care system than provided by Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County, a modern 153-bed facility. Baptist offers a broad range of services with 22 physicians on staff and recruitment efforts underway for additional doctors.

Union County’s population increased 14.8% to 25,362 between 1990 and 2000, compared to Mississippi’s 10.5% increase. Examination of the Census Bureau’s yearly population estimates reveals that Union County’s growth accelerated at mid-decade with a vast majority of the growth occurring after 1995, indicating a new growth trend for the county.

U.S. 78, built to interstate standards, boosts the county’s economy by allowing quick and efficient transport of goods. It also allows easy access to Memphis (about an hour’s drive) for those residents desiring the amenities offered by a metropolitan area. Mississippi 15, the county’s major north-south artery, has been designated by the Mississippi Legislature for four-laning under Phase 4 of the AHEAD Highway Program. New Albany will then be at the intersection of two major four-lane highways, enhancing the area’s competitiveness for industrial and distribution locations. County and city governments are working together to develop a future surface water supply to augment dropping ground water levels.

While groundwater supplies are sufficient at the present time, local officials are planning ahead to avoid a future water supply crisis.

The Union County Development Association is actively recruiting industrial and business prospects and is working to identify further economic diversification opportunities for the county. With continued hard work and cooperation between county government, city government, and UCDA, Union County and New Albany will build on the existing, sound foundation and move the community to the next level in economic development and quality of life.

Glenn Duckworth is executive director of the Union County Development Association. Members of the Mississippi Economic Development Council provide a weekly column to the Mississippi Business Journal. MEDC, which was established in 1963, is comprised of nearly 600 economic development professionals and business leaders who are interested in making their Mississippi communities better places in which to live and work.


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