By LISA MONTI
The low cost of living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast along with upgrades in some downtown districts give the coastal counties a big advantage in attracting a new generation of professionals.
That’s one of the key takeaways from a new analysis commissioned by the Gulf Coast Business Council to find out how the Mississippi coast stacks up against other Southeastern metro areas in attracting new residents drawn to green spaces, access to restaurants and shopping, cultural opportunities and other favored lifestyle amenities.
“We’re seeking the next generation coming into the workforce who don’t like long commutes and who want to be engaged in their community,” said Ashley Edwards, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “We wanted to gauge where we are in terms of our current quality of place and how we can continue to improve in key areas where we have opportunities.”
The University of Southern Mississippi’s Trent Lott National Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship pulled together the comparison to gauge how the coast’s metro area competed in place making and talent attraction.
“We found that the overwhelming competitive advantage we have on Mississippi Gulf Coast is in the relatively low cost of living compared to a lot of the other regions that are growing,” Edwards said. “We have the lowest median home sales price of all the regions we studied and a lower cost of living index than any of the other regions.”
Other advantages for the Mississippi Coast that were revealed in the study were its growing popularity as a tourist destination and the fast growth of coastal communities worldwide.
Edwards said his agency is looking at the national shift from a decade ago when metropolitan areas like Austin, Nashville and Atlanta “saw high in-migration of these talented creative professionals but the cost of living in these markets got so out of hand that many folks are now beginning to look at regions where there is a high quality of life but with lower home prices. We feel like that’s a tremendous opportunity for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Recently announced projects and ongoing improvements in coastal cities are important to attracting new residents and visitors, he said.
“We are already seeing important forward momentum on the coast as it relates to community development. The high-quality developments in downtown Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis are exactly the types of things we want to see as we prepare for this evolving economy and look to attract the talent for the next generation of economic prosperity,” he said. “We hope we will see continued new construction starts and new housing units and mixed-use developments that are going to be both desirable and affordable.”
The Coast does have deficiencies that need improvement, such as affordable access to high-speed Internet, to bring up the region’s quality of place standards.
Edwards said that in the past, existing jobs were needed to draw new residents but in booming cities like Nashville, where more than 100 people a day moved in, most didn’t come with a job in hand.
“It’s an interesting dynamic because you have a lot more entrepreneurship in this next generation of work force. They are involved in more mobile business operations so they can choose to live anywhere and work remotely, “ he said.
Still, Edwards said, it’s important not only to create new jobs but to retain existing jobs with a diversity of occupations to maintain a healthy job base. “The recommendation we have is to take the comprehensive approach, not one or the other. Retaining and growing what’s already here is incredibly important.”
The study points out that changing the coast’s economy will not be fast or easy. “Our goal here is to create a public narrative about opportunities and to provide the necessary leadership to advance the ball,” Edwards said. “We can’t do it alone. It’s going to take wide range of stakeholders who understand the opportunities and who are willing to make this happen.”
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