University changes Hattiesburg’s direction
Arguably, the most important date in the community and economic development history of the City of Hattiesburg is March 30, 1910, On that day, Mississippi Normal College, dedicated entirely to teacher training, was chartered by the Mississippi Legislature.
The first class had a mere 227 students led by 17 faculty members. A century later, that institution has evolved into the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), which did not just change the landscape of the “Hub City,” but also took it in an entirely new direction — literally — as the city’s bustling Hardy Street/U.S. 98 corridor was born with the senior research institution’s opening.
“Early city leaders saw Hattiesburg growing south, toward the Coast,” said USM history professor and campus historian Dr. Bo Morgan. “But, when they chose the Hardy Street site for the college, suddenly leaders saw potential for growth to the west. Before that, the street car only ran west on Hardy Street from downtown to Gordon’s Creek and turned around. There was nothing passed there.
“Without a doubt, the development you see today along Hardy Street and Highway 98 began when the college was founded.”
No one understands or appreciates what USM has meant to Hattiesburg’s business community more than Andy Stetelman, SIOR, GRI, LMAR. Owner/broker of the Hattiesburg-based commercial real estate firm London & Stetelman, he says USM at 100 years old remains an invaluable asset to landing new business prospects.
“Unequivocally, USM remains one of our ‘anchors,’ and is a driving force for a lot of decision-makers to be in our market for office, retail and industrial space,” Stetelman said.
Stetelman and others in the Pine Belt owe a debt of gratitude to early city leaders for landing USM. Competition for the college was keen, with Hattiesburg vying for the site with Laurel and Jackson. Hattiesburg won after leaders offered 120 acres and floated bonds totaling $250,000. (The original five structures on the campus cost a total of $178,000.)
Leaders also promised to extend Hardy Street and the street car service all the way to the site at Hardy Street and U.S. 49. That proved a deal-sealer.
Still, there were many challenges to USM’s growth. Not the least of these was landing the designation “university.”
Over its first few decades, the institution grew from a mere teacher’s college. In 1940, the name was changed to Mississippi Southern College to reflect this growth. But, growing from “college” to “university” took some courage and ingenuity by one of the institution’s most admired presidents, Dr. William McCain.
According to Morgan, McCain wanted the institution to have university status, but state education leaders were totally opposed to the move. McCain started working toward that designation any way, instructing the faculty and staff to never as much as utter the word “university.”
“So, the board called him in and asked him if he was trying to make the college into a university,” Morgan said. “Dr. McCain looked at them and said truthfully, ‘That word has never been used in my presence.’”
In 1962, seven years after McCain took office, the institution officially became the University of Southern Mississippi.
Morgan said USM in its early history largely saw its role as a driver of local economic and community development as an “offshoot.” He said that changed in the mid-1970s when Dr. Aubrey Lucas realized the university’s potential to positively impact the city’s development. Succeeding leaders built on that vision.
Today, USM offers such development assets as the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, which has been instrumental in transforming Interstate 59 into a “polymer corridor.”
Just this month, USM dedicated the Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, a 53,000-square-foot facility that will serve as the hub of academic and outreach efforts for the institution’s ongoing focus on economic advancement.
The Garden is another asset for the city. A facility developed by USM, it is designed to attract and retain research intensive companies. On March 10, Ablitech, whose flagship product line, Versade, is a technology that enables gene therapies for the treatment of all forms of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, announced it was moving its laboratories and offices into The Garden.
“We’re pleased that the University of Southern Mississippi foresaw the needs of companies like ours,” said Ablitech CEO Ken Malone. “Without that vision, we would have been hard pressed to stay in Hattiesburg.”
In addition, USM’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of economic development, the only institution of higher learning in Mississippi to provide such degrees.
USM’s impact on development is felt outside of Hattiesburg, too. More than 3,000 of USM’s total student body of 16,000-plus are located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In addition to the Gulf Park campus at Long Beach, USM offers instruction at the Gulf Coast Service Center, John C. Stennis Space Center, Keesler Air Force Base, Jackson County Teaching Site, the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and the Point Cadet Teaching Site.
USM has already begun its centennial celebration. The university is offering nearly 50 events to commemorate the milestone, events that will run through December. For more details, visit www.usm.edu/centennial.
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