The new challenge is to create a strategic plan that will focus South Mississippi’s direction for the next 10-15 years.
“I think we can all feel the momentum here,” Anthony Wilson, CEO of Mississippi Power Co. and vice chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council, told the more than 500 business and community leaders who attended Friday’s event at IP Casino Resort.
“We need to have a plan collectively,” he said. “A lot can happen with 500 voices saying ‘this is what we want to do.’”
Where we stand
Layoffs are few, the cost of living is among the lowest in the country and the population of South Mississippi is increasing, the business leaders heard during 90 minutes of reports, and they are encouraged.
For nine years, the Business Council has surveyed business leaders every quarter to find out how they view the local economy and their plans for hiring.
John Hairston, president of Hancock Whitney Bank and chairman of the GCBC, said they’ve never had as much participation or as positive an outlook as this year’s third quarter Economic Confidence Survey.
It shows a 72 percent confidence rate in the local economy compared to a 35 percent rate in 2009 during the national recession. Just as impressive, Hairston said, it shows that 40 percent of the executives who responded to the survey expect to add staff in the next six months.
The nation is adding an average of 207,000 jobs a month, said Darrin Webb, state economist for Mississippi. But 90 percent of the job growth is in the major metropolitan areas, and Mississippi doesn’t have an Atlanta or Boston.
“You’re struggling because of that,” Webb said.
The U.S. economy is booming, he showed in his Economic Outlook Report. That puts people in the mood to shop, which he said bodes well for the upcoming Christmas season.
“Consumer sentiment is very strong and it’s been strong,” he said. “When people feel good they spend money.”
Retail sales are growing around 2.8 percent, bolstered by tax cuts, higher incomes and the softening of credit, he said.
But the Coast took a bigger hit than most of the country from the Great Recession, he said, which came about the same time as the 2010 BP oil spill. The local economy saw an upturn in 2012, he said, but the gross domestic product declined in South Mississippi three of the last five years since.
Only half of the working-age people in Hancock County are actually working, and only 61 percent across the three Coast counties, he said. That’s below the national average of 62.9 percent.
South Mississippi relies on the federal, state and local government as its largest source of earnings, he said, both from jobs and the 24 percent of residents who get their income from government checks.
Coast report card
Roberto Gallardo said he left an ice storm in Indiana, where he now works at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, to return to Mississippi and give the Coast a dashboard of positive and negatives.
“Weather,” he said, is one of the big selling points for South Mississippi. With warm weather comes an abundance of RV parks and other recreation facilities that he said should be tied to the area’s economic development strategy to bring jobs and people to the area.
He ranked the area in several categories:
▪ Prosperity — needs work. South Mississippi has the advantage of being more affordable than other areas in the region but its overall economic strength is dead last, he said.
▪ Place — a plus, although the Coast needs to capitalize on its weather, beach and amenities
▪ Product — needs work. The Coast has a good supply of restaurants, nightlife and shopping, he said, but a limited number of flights.
▪ People — mixed. The Coast needs to improve diversity, he said. There are a high number of engineers on the Coast but a low number of residents with bachelor’s degrees and who hold patents. Capitalize on military and engineers already here, he said, find out what brought them to South Mississippi and try to replicate that in other occupations.
▪ Promotion — a plus. South Mississippi is doing a great job of promoting itself online, he said. “Google yourself and see what pops up,” he suggested.
Despite the shortcomings, Gallardo said he thinks South Mississippi has the elements in place to start moving the bar forward.
He gave Coast leaders homework as they begin work on a strategic plan.
He called the low cost of living and median home price a “tremendous asset” for the Coast.
“A lot of young families are moving out of expensive areas,” he said. With every one high-tech job that comes to the Coast, he said, five more are created in the community.
High-speed internet is going to be increasingly critical to attracting jobs, he said, and it needs to be developed. Workers can increasingly live wherever they want in this digital age, he said, forcing communities to come up with a placemaking strategy to attract them.
And come up with a regional hashtag for social media, he said.