As CEO of the largest bank headquartered in Mississippi, John Hairston spends a great deal of time studying the Coast economy.
What he sees worries him.
Other Gulf regions outpace the Mississippi Coast in terms of income growth and other indicators of economic vitality. He hasn’t seen what he calls a “game-changing” business or industry arrive since 1992, when the first casino opened, erasing almost overnight several years of deficit spending in Biloxi.
He would hate to see modest growth labeled a success when the Coast could aim so much higher.
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“There’s no reason the Mississippi Coast can’t be one of the best places to live and work in the country,” he said. “But the community has to make a decision to get there.”
Hairston is CEO of Hancock Whitney Bank and immediate past chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council, which is hiring a third-party expert who will catalog the Coast’s strengths and weaknesses, then present a plan for growth. The plan would focus on quality of life as well as the economy, for Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties, a central region lacking regional direction.
The effort is driven not only by the Coast’s weak economic performance but also by the well-documented “brain drain” Mississippi is experiencing. Census data shows the state is not only losing population but also a prized resource — millennials, young people born between 1981 and 1996.
Brain drain appears to be slower on the Coast, but the sense among community leaders is that too many college graduates are choosing to settle elsewhere and too few are migrating here.
Consider the Coast’s assets: The cost of living is comparatively low. Natural beauty abounds. Historically, waves of immigrants have spiced the culture, creating a place apart from the rest of Mississippi. Within our separate state, cities from Hancock to Jackson county have forged unique identities, offering destinations within a destination for locals and tourists alike.
Consider obvious liabilities: relatively low wages, a high poverty rate, fewer college graduates than other states, dependence on federal money, competition rather than cooperation across geographic boundaries and, not to be discounted, a reputation for intolerance that many believe Mississippi perpetuates by clinging to symbols such as the Confederate flag.
“The data that I have seen demonstrates that we still have a challenge as it relates to convincing young people that the best economic opportunities, the best quality-of-life opportunities, can be found at home rather than elsewhere,” said Ashley Edwards, the business council’s president and CEO.
Significant funding streams flowing to the Coast could help fund improvements needed to grow the economy and population, including $30 million a year in economic damages through 2033 from the BP oil spill, about $20 million a year through 2031 for environmental restoration as a result of the spill, and $25 million to $30 million a year from offshore oil leases.
“If you don’t have a destination in mind, any road is going to take you there,” said Anthony Wilson, current GCBC chairman and CEO of Mississippi Power. “You better have a plan. We gotta have a plan. Again, we have some of the biggest advantages the Coast has ever seen before us right now.
“If we have a plan to use those resources, I think the potential of the Gulf Coast is unlimited. I really believe that.”
‘Our Achilles heel’
The Mississippi Coast has strengths to play on, as emphasized in a report the University of Southern Mississippi completed for the Gulf Coast Business Council in November 2018.
The report, “Gulf Coast Place Making & Talent Attraction”, compares the economic, cultural and social characteristics of the Coast to 10 other metro areas in the Southeast: Jackson, Hattiesburg, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Mobile, Huntsville, Pensacola and Fayetteville, Ark.
The Coast has the lowest cost of living and the lowest median home price among the 11 metro areas.
It’s also a beautiful place to live, one of only 49 National Heritage Areas designated by the National Park Service because its historic, cultural and natural features create what NPS calls a “nationally important landscape.”
But the Coast seriously lags in terms of overall economic health, ranking 349 out of 383 metropolitan areas nationwide. Both Hattiesburg and Jackson scored far higher.
Policom Corp. compiles the rankings annually based on 23 economic indicators. Company president William Fruth said he wants to present a complete economic picture of metro areas. Chambers of commerce, he said, like to cherry-pick statistics that make their areas look good.
All three Coast counties rely heavily on government payments — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and such — as a percentage of personal income. Compared to areas where the economy is strong, wages are low, especially in Harrison, where the majority of residents are employed in hotels, restaurants, retail stores and local government.
Hancock County has Stennis Space Center with a host of federal employers and high-tech jobs, while Ingalls Shipbuilding in Jackson County is one of the state’s top manufacturing employers. But many Stennis employees live across the state line in Louisiana, while Ingalls workers often commute from Alabama.
Why these workers would rather commute than live on the Coast stumps John Hairston and others. The Coast’s natural beauty, they say, can’t be beat.
“Our Achilles heel, economically, is we need to do a better job with those people we hire, to get them to choose to live where they work,” Hairston said.
‘A different world down here’
The Coast considers itself a place apart from Mississippi, and the rest of Mississippi seems to feel the same way about the Coast.
“We didn’t have the great plantations that central Mississippi and the Delta had,” said Deanne Stephens, who has a doctorate in history and works as an associate dean at USM on the Coast. “We developed a different economy, which attracted a different people, which made it a very different culture on the Coast. In my mind, there’s almost two Mississippis.
“It’s a different world we live in down here. I think it’s a more tolerant world on the Coast.”
Stephens said the Coast more resembles its “bookend cities,” New Orleans and Mobile. The French settled all three. Historically, waves of immigrants followed on the Mississippi Coast, creating a culture more diverse than the state’s interior.
While much of Mississippi developed around an agricultural economy, the Coast relied to a large extent on shipping and rail, seafood, lumber and tourism.
“People who wanted that little bit of sin came down here from central Mississippi,” Stephens said. “It’s like that saying, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ I think what happened in Biloxi stayed in Biloxi.
“The gambling, the drinking — good gracious, at one time Kiln was the No. 1 bootlegging place in the country.”
As the Coast stands apart from Mississippi, so do its communities insulate themselves. Three counties house 12 distinct cities.
No regional agency plans for all of them, which members of the Gulf Coast Business Council see as a disadvantage for economic development, particularly after visiting Atlanta. The Atlanta metro area is one of the fastest growing in the South and the Atlanta Regional Commission is helping direct that growth, from transportation planning to workforce development and liveable communities.
“Our economy is changing before our eyes,” the GCBC’s Edwards said. “The days of chasing smokestacks are probably more in our rearview window rather than our windshield.”
Edwards does not want to discount existing industries that serve as the Coast economy’s foundation. He’s thinking ahead, to the kinds of scientific and technical jobs that will dominate in the future.
“How do we concentrate on the next generation of jobs and industry that will be a major component of the 21st Century economy?” he asked.
“It’s not necessarily about developing industrial sites and water and sewer systems. It’s about quality of life, it’s about amenities. It’s about high-speed internet access.”
Creating ‘a welcoming place’
Involving broad segments of the community in planning is one way to ensure the Coast, as a whole, benefits from the results, said John Green, director of the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi.
“I think the process matters,” Green said. “We have to have that mix of people coming together. That process makes a big difference.
“If just businesses come up with a big plan, it’s not going to have that buy-in, but it’s also not going to have the understanding of all these complex issues that you would have if you a diverse group of people coming from different sectors of the economy. I think that process is really, really important.”
He said leaders in business, education and the community — whether selected from nonprofits and/or churches — should be involved.
The Coast can build on an economic base that is already diverse. He cautions against putting all the emphasis on young Coast residents moving out of state because the other side of that equation is persuading people to move in.
“There is population change by age that they should be concerned about and part of that is because of outmigration,” Green said. “I would argue that’s not as bad or as dire as some other places but that it’s still a concern.”
Green thinks “brain drain” is too facile a description of population change. Births, deaths, out-migration and in-migration all combine to drive population change and, over time, Mississippi’s rural areas have experienced population loss at higher rates.
Corey Miller, an economic analyst with the state’s University Research Center, looked at populations shifts between 2011 and 2016 in the age groups that most closely align with millennials.
He said the millennial population decreased slightly between 2011 and 2016 in Hancock County, increased more than 3 percent in Harrison County and went up by almost 1 percent in Jackson County.
A comparable number for Mississippi showed a 3.9 percent decrease, while the increase nationwide was 3.1 percent.
He also looked at population change across ages, finding Mississippi’s population barely changed, while Coast counties saw increases comparable to U.S. population growth.
Miller said: “If I had to draw conclusions from this data, which again is not entirely ideal, I’d say the relatively more urban areas of the Coast and the industries it supports have allowed these counties to maintain or moderately grow their millennial populations compared to Mississippi as a whole.
“The proximity of these counties to the larger cities in other states along the coast is probably a factor as well.”
In-migration to a region or state helps create the kind of vibrant communities that attract young people, Green said. He offers Oxford and surrounding Lafayette County as an example. It is one area of the state where the population is growing quickly, partly because of in-migration.
“Here’s the key: People want to live in vibrant communities,” Green said. “This circles back around to, how do we have our community feel like a welcoming place, even for people who are different? That can turn around and make it attractive for the people who already live there.”
“One of the things is that people like to live in a very dynamic, diverse place, and that has implications for what’s offered in schools, to what types of cultural opportunities are available in the community, what types of things there are to do because of having a diverse community. That’s all expanded.”