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Future bright despite recession, officials say

Harrison County encouraged by 2001 financials

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — The Coast’s economy is not doing that bad, especially considering it was faced with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the economic recession that followed. The Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) put together its 2001 annual report to show the people of Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties just that.

“We were impacted but not as drastically as many communities were,” said Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission.

Olivier said the Gulf Coast’s diversified economy helped to ease the effect of the economic downturn.

“The epitome of economic development is to achieve a diversified economy and we are getting there,” he said. “It’s quite evident.”

It certainly is. The Gulf Coast has a good mix of transportation, construction, service, hospitality and manufacturing industries, which has lead to the area’s entrepreneurial vitality and international competitiveness.

In point of fact: the increase in population from 165,365 residents according to the 1990 Census to 189,601 in 2000 — a 14% increase over the 10-year period. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the average household income for the Biloxi-Gulfport-Pascagoula Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which jumped 76.3% from 1990 ($29,273) to 2000 ($51,655). Also, the Gulf Coast’s average household wealth for 2000 was estimated at $172,562 — 12% higher than the Mississippi average of $154,182.

Brynn Joachim, HCDC commercial development manager, said these average household income and wealth numbers are an indication of the continuing rise in household income on the Gulf Coast.

“In terms of projections we’re looking at personal income to continue to grow by about 4% in 2002 and return to a traditional growth rate of 5% in 2003 and 2004,” Joachim said.

The civilian labor force on the Gulf Coast increased by 0.4%, from 163,247 in 2000 to 163,898 in 2001 based on establishment-based employment. That includes employment in government sectors, service and miscellaneous workplaces, manufacturing sectors, real estate and finance, construction, public education, transportation and wholesale and retail trade. It is a slowing from previous years where there have been 2% to 3% increases in establishment-based employment, but Joachim said this year’s numbers are reflective of the slowed number of announced business expansions and construction projects. She added that the migration trends into Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties have slowed some, too, another reflection of the employment numbers.

“Usually with employment comes population increases,” Joachim explained.

As for unemployment levels on the Gulf Coast, they actually decreased to 3.8% in 2001 versus 4.7% in 2000.

“It was a roller coaster year with many layoffs in Jackson County,” Joachim said. “Probably about 3,500 workers were impacted at some point during the year. We ended up coming out with a decrease.”

Future employment projected to grow

In the future, employment is projected to grow at 1.1% annually through 2006 with the highest growth rate of 2.1% being in the services industry, which makes up 28% of the Gulf Coast’s economy — more than any other sector. Wholesale and retail trade are expected to come back by mid-2002 with annual growth rates of 1%, while the transportation/communications/utility sector is projected to grow at an annual rate of 1.4%.

Commercial construction has also been on a wild ride over the last several years. Joachim was surprised to see that Harrison County’s numbers reflected a 28% increase from 2000 levels of new commercial building permits of $96.2 million to $123.2 million in 2001.

“Some forget that a $30-million new high school also employs people,” Joachim said.

Other projects on the Gulf Coast include, among others, Grand Casino’s new parking garage and entertainment pavilion, the renovation of two restaurants at Beau Rivage, an expansion project at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Biloxi and an expansion of Memorial Hospital in Gulfport. A new Arnold Palmer golf course in Harrison County is also under construction.

“So while everyone was talking recession and doom and gloom there were projects that continue to make progress,” Joachim said. “We believe that those who continue to make headway on projects probably in the long run are going to be the best poised to take advantage of the economy when we begin to see economic indicator numbers come out in mid-2002.”

Harrison County residential construction in 2001 was down 26% from 2000 levels according to the HCDC. In 2001 there was $146.1 million in construction permits, as opposed to 2000 when $199.5 million was permitted — a reflection of construction in the residential sector returning to more moderate levels, said Joachim.

“We were at rocket pace in 1998 and 1999 and 2000, and I think it’s a little bit of supply and demand,” she said. “We still have construction, just not at the record pace it was before.”

In retail sales, the Mississippi Gulf Coast did $4.7 billion in sales in 2001, versus $4.8 billion in 2000. Joachim said HCDC considers those figures a reflection of the national recession, and the slight dip in tourist visitation, which is a large contributor to the area’s retail sales.

“We almost view a 2% decrease in retail sales as being flat or stagnant,” Joachim said.

Adele Lyons, executive director of the Gulf Coast Business Technology Center (GCBTC) in Biloxi, believes the HCDC 2001 annual report was thorough.

“It covers so many areas and has so much information,” she said. “I think it’s good the commission does that and puts that out for the community.”

Lyons said she is optimistic about the future and said the people she has spoken to are also.

“During the last couple of weekends there have been plenty of folks in town,” she said. “That’s a good indication of the tourism season to come. I think things are looking pretty positive.”

Despite the positive outlook, Lyons said less people than the usual are inquiring with the GCBTC about starting businesses.

“I really don’t want to say it’s slow —we’re just not seeing quite as many people as we normally would after the first of the year,” she said.

Joachim said the future of the Mississippi Gulf Coast looks good.

“I think we are going to see our businesses continue to grow but it will come in small bursts — small business growth, small manufacturing growth, additional shipments into the Port of Gulfport, improvements to our existing resort facilities,” she said. “We’re not going to see the dramatic new facility construction in 2002 that we’ve seen in the past.”

She predicted jobs would come in increments of 50 to 100 as opposed to larger increments.

Not to worry though, Joachim said. “Small is not a bad thing in terms of economic growth. That way we can control it and manage it the way we want to.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com.


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