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Magnolia bound: education, hospitality attracts professionals, retirees

Recruiting Mississippians to work in Jackson is easy, said Billy Sims, vice president of human resources for Jackson-based Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company.

“But if they’re from out of this area, the hardest thing I have to do is sell them on coming to look at Jackson, Mississippi,” he said. “But if we get them here for an onsite visit, they’re usually sold. They see that Mississippi isn’t as backward as they’ve read about. They’re surprised when they see a really pretty city and a very open and friendly community. Our crime is higher than it should be for a city this size, and depending on where they’re coming from, that’s a concern. But if they’re from Atlanta or Dallas or one of the bigger cities, the crime here doesn’t phase them.”

To help relocated employees adapt socially, Southern Farm keeps them busy through organized sports, charitable events and committee work.

“We have an orientation program, where we try to get them involved, depending on their interests, through employee activities and in the community, like our softball teams and the PGA tournament, and The United Way, Junior Achievement and Adopt-A-School programs,” he said.

“The quicker we get them involved in those activities, the quicker they start being part of a group. That’s especially important to young professionals who are seeking bonding activities.”

Thanks to a flexible transition plan, Southern Farm’s employee turnover rate is a low 6.6%.

“I think that’s because we do try to get them involved early on and they want to stay,” he said. “Pretty soon, they’ve bonded not only with the company but with the community.”

John Lovorn, founder of The PACE Group, an executive search firm, doles out “Attitude is Everything” coins to clients and their spouses.

“We say, ‘Remember, the first two years, you need to tame your tongue and train your ears,’” he said. “If it’s a community development job the client is taking, we ask him to solicit opinions and to take notes.”

Part of Lovorn’s job is to identify hot-button issues with clients considering relocating.

“The three top factors involved in a corporate relocation are education, education and education,” he said. “Quality of education is becoming more important in the quality of life issue. If you don’t have strong public schools, then you need to work on it.”

Surprisingly, a nice salary and benefit package is not the number one issue in deciding whether to relocate, even though it is a top factor.

“It doesn’t matter whether they live in Fargo, N.D., or Stockton, Calif., every client of ours says they have an outstanding quality of life,” he said. “As a Mississippian, I know we have an outstanding quality of life, but you’ve got to sell more than that.”

Often, the company assists with spousal involvement in the new community.

“We ask the trailing spouse to give every new opportunity two years,” he said.

“If they work outside the home, we encourage them to get involved in the community through church or civic responsibilities and to try to take on a role in something that will make a difference. If the couple has a great attitude and takes our advice, usually it works out for the best. But attitude truly is everything.”

Even though most of their Canadian neighbors gravitated to the Sunshine State during the winters, and some year round, Roy Winkworth and his wife discovered Natchez and never left.

“My wife and I liked Natchez so much,” he said. “We had a lot of friends here, a good church and church family, and we decided the extent of our retirement move would be from a regular, good old-fashioned ranch in the suburbs to a Victorian home in downtown Natchez, where we would have a little more room and a little more fun. It has 11-foot ceilings and huge windows that I have trouble finding shades for. They’re 84 inches long. That was our big retirement move.”

Christy Knapp, assistant executive director and retiree attraction program director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, said she’s glad that retirees “aren’t just flocking to Florida any more.”

“It’s nice to see that trend change,” she said.

So, why are more people choosing Mississippi for business or retirement relocation?

“People are looking at the weather,” said Winkworth, director of the Natchez Retiree Partnership. “I recently spent the day with a couple from Maryland, and they didn’t want to put up with snow any more. This far south, they don’t have to. We’ve only had one significant snow since we moved here in 1981.”

A lower cost of living is another factor, said Winkworth.

“Housing costs and property taxes in Mississippi are very low compared to the Northeast and the north central part of the country,” he said. “These folks have a home that’s worth about $400,000 up North, and they’re paying about $4,000 a year in property taxes. Here, they’d be able to replace it very handily with a $100,000 to $150,000 house and pay roughly $1,000 in property taxes. In Natchez, you can get a brand spanking new house or have one built for you on a golf course or buy a moderately priced Victorian home for a very reasonable cost. They’re looking at pure economics.”

Tax benefits are a huge factor, said Diana O’Toole, TMP, program manager of Hometown Mississippi Retirement, the state’s official retiree attraction program.

“Mississippi is tax-friendly when it comes to retirees,” she said. “In addition to low tax rates in general, retirees living in Mississippi don’t have to pay any state income tax on qualified retirement income.”

The state’s cultural amenities attract people by the droves, said Knapp.

“Oxford offers wonderful opportunities through the university, a nice affordable lifestyle, a great quality of life, and wonderful people,” said Knapp.

Easy access to a quality healthcare facility is a primary consideration for relocating seniors, said Walter Howell, AARP associate state director for advocacy.

“I know the Gulf Coast has a lot of these, and a lot of military retirees on the Coast have the V.A. and Keesler, so that’s an attraction to them,” he said. “But the general retiree considers a nearby quality healthcare facility a very major attraction.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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