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Largest cities driving the Magnolia State’s economy

Mississippi’s largest cities by population and sales tax collections continue to be key components in the state’s overall economy. There was some shifting in sales tax collections from 2005 to 2006 as Biloxi dropped from number five to number eight — presumably due to businesses lost to Hurricane Katrina — and Columbus and Laurel swapped the number nine and 10 spots.

Also of interest, neither Laurel nor Columbus are among the state’s top 10 cities by population, but earned spots among those garnering top sales taxes. Nor is Ridgeland, another city that ranks among the top sales tax collectors.

On the other side of the coin, three of the top 10 populated cities — Greenville, Vicksburg and Pascagoula — were not among the top sales tax producers in 2005 or 2006. Pascagoula and Vicksburg, however, along with Pearl and Flowood, are gaining momentum in this category and could unseat numbers nine and 10 for 2007.

George Lewis, executive director of the Mississippi Municipal League, said the 18.5% of sales taxes returned to cities is extremely important. Every city is different and these funds impact them in different ways.

“No city can do without it,” he said. “It’s used to build roads, pay salaries for firemen and policemen and many other things. As businesses grow so does the need for infrastructure, which is very expensive and increasing. These things go hand in hand.”

The league has 289 member cities, or 97% of the municipalities in the state. Lewis said it’s an exciting time for cities as new growth brings more growth and affects many aspects of city systems.

“Look at Flowood, Madison, Ridgeland and Clinton with all the commercial activity they’re experiencing,” he said. “DeSoto County is growing and the corridor of Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast is coming back strong.”

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr affirms that sales tax collections have surged and remain steady at this elevated level since Katrina, thanks to the many businesses that recovered quickly and resumed operation after the storm.

“Gulfport’s economy is fueled by retail sales, which are generated in large part by businesses located north of Interstate 10,” he said. “Because of these factors, our tax collections have more than compensated for losses we suffered in other areas.”

He expects retail growth to continue to rise as retailers recognize the port city as the central point on the Gulf Coast, and that the need for quality goods and materials did not diminish when Katrina blew through the area.

“We’ve pulled in some good retail numbers over the past few years, before and after Katrina,” he said. “That’s a fact that prospective retailers do not miss. There are more eyes on our city and region than ever before and there’s no end in sight.”

Warr hopes Gulfport’s downtown area will be revitalized with a new streetscape design, grants and a project to replace street lighting and furnishings, sidewalks and replacing concrete medians with wider grass-filled medians.

“These projects will provide a quick facelift for the downtown area, a move we believe will benefit the entire district and attract outside investment,” he added. “We have seen a number of businesses return and new ones locate in downtown Gulfport.”

Hattiesburg’s sales tax collections continue to increase and are a vital part of the city, said Angie Godwin, executive director of the Area Development Partnership.

“The city’s trade area has dramatically increased too,” she said. “We did a definitive retail study that reveals that retail business is growing rapidly in our area. We predict that trend will continue.”

Thirty miles to the north, another Pine Belt city, Laurel, also enjoys retail growth. Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, said the city has always been a regional trade center.

“We draw from the counties of Jones, Covington, Smith, Jasper, Wayne and Perry,” he said. “We compete some with Hattiesburg for Covington and Perry counties, but beyond that we have small towns in the area with little retail.”

The city’s growth includes several recent ribbon cuttings. Downtown, two new restaurants are planned, and three of the largest buildings have been bought for revitalization.

“It’s refreshing to see this happening, and we have a good mix of retail, boutique shops, big discounters and restaurants,” Stennett said. “I’m told we’ve had an influx of people since Katrina, and the increase in traffic indicates it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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