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Business strong in towns north of coastal destruction

As coastal businesses re-open and re-build in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, communities just north of the three Coast counties report strong activity.

In Lucedale, George County’s only town, most businesses were able to open soon after the storm. “We had the initial shock of the hurricane with some damage and the loss of power, but most everyone was able to open quickly even though some received extensive physical damage,” said Sue Wright, executive director of the George County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re surprised at how busy things are. People with retail stores have big smiles on their faces because there seems to be a lot of money in the economy.”

Wright says the chamber is receiving inquiries about opening businesses in the town of 2,500 residents and numerous questions about real estate. Things are booming so much that area leaders met recently to assess opportunities for the town and county. The meeting included the mayor, chamber directors, business owners, Realtors, home builders, bankers and members of the county board of supervisors.

“It went well and we discussed what is going on here and what our opportunities are,” she said.

The area doesn’t have an inventory of houses and apartments to help displaced people wanting to move there. The real surprise is that upper-end homes are selling faster and easier than lower-priced ones, Wright said.

“Realtors say people are putting their homes on the market without even having somewhere to go,” she added. “Maybe they were thinking of building a new home, and this is an opportunity to sell their existing home.”

Moving forward

She feels that Lucedale and George County can be positioned to move forward at this crucial time. The town applied with the Mississippi Development Authority to become a certified retirement community, and she believes current conditions strengthen their position.

“Retirees can come here and be safe but still be close to Gulf Coast amenities,” she said. “There’s definitely an upbeat feeling here now, and we’re optimistic.”

One of the Lucedale businesses experiencing a rush is Carolyn Nicholson’s Community Grocery, which she’s operated since 1986. “It has not slowed down, and things are booming,” she said. “It has been unreal.”

Soon after the storm passed, Nicholson got her small generator going and was able to pump what gas she had available. She had a full week without electric power.
Using a flashlight and a propane gas stove, she cooked and served free coffee to weary residents and relief workers.

“I would start at 5 a.m. and sometimes be 10 o’clock at night leaving,” she said. “I wore myself down and had to go to bed to recuperate.”

Nicholson also has a restaurant, The Real Steak House, that she opened last March. It had damage and was closed for two weeks after the storm, but business has been booming since reopening.

“It’s been wonderful at both businesses with all the extra people here from FEMA, insurance adjustors and new people moving here,” she said.

John Cook’s tire business on the main street of Wiggins is busier than ever. He and his son, Robert, own and operate Danzey’s Tire Service and were closed for two days after the storm passed. They, too, reopened with no electricity.

“We had no lights or air conditioning. We used the air compressor on our service truck to fix flats,” John Cook said. “I knew people had to go, and we didn’t let the lack of power stop us from helping people.”

For several weeks after the hurricane, the Cooks fixed 50 to 75 flat tires each day, far more than usual. While that number has lessened, they’re still plenty busy. They also say they’ve seen a lot of people from outside Wiggins and Stone County.

“Most businesses here opened back up after just a few days, and everyone says they’ve seen people they’ve never seen before,” he said. “They’re coming from the coastal towns and all the debris is causing a lot of flat tires.”

Getting back to normal

Bordering on two of the hardest hit areas — Hancock County and Slidell, La., — Picayune in Pearl River County is getting back to normal. Businesses were shut down for several days following the hurricane, according to Mary McCullough, executive director of the Picayune Chamber of Commerce.
vShe feels that any town that’s up and running near New Orleans and the Coast is busy at this time. Her office receives calls continuously about real estate. Anything that was available was quickly taken and motels are booked for the next several months.

“We already had evacuees here renting, and now many of them are buying homes,” McCullough said. “A lot of houses are selling, and we don’t have any more available.”

Traffic also is way beyond what Picayune usually experiences with a lot of Hancock County tags and Louisiana tags being observed.

“Retail sales are really good, but everyone is looking for help,” she said. “There is a big void in service jobs and lots of classified ads in the paper.”

She added that the Wal-Mart Super Center that is normally open 24 hours is closing early due to lack of help.

In Poplarville, the chamber’s Peggy Smith says all businesses are up and running. “I’ve seen a lot of out-of-county and out-of-state car tags and I know that many children from outside the district registered when the Poplarville School District started back,” she said.

Smith says she’s been surprised at how busy some of the businesses have been in the town of 2,610 residents.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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