- Bob Arnold
Pandemic drives economic development
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused Copiah County businesses to be more cautious in exercising their plans, but record low unemployment and soaring tax collections are confirming the opinion of local economic developer Arthur Lee (Pokey) Evans, Jr. that it has complemented his work as well as complicated it.
During 2021, Copiah County did not see the location of any major new employers, but its unemployment rate tumbled to 3.4 per cent and sales and property tax collections increased.
Evans, Executive Director of Copiah County Economic Development District (CCEDD), attributes the good news to what he calls "economic localization" driven by COVID-19. "Local retail stores are teeming with customers who have curtailed travel, but still want and need to do business," Evans points out. "People have learned they can shop locally and continue to utilize local sources that create jobs and generate tax revenues to boost the economy of our villages, towns and cities."
In a year characterized by business caution and a sluggish business recruiting environment, CCEDD also completed work focused on getting old large industrial buildings that were lying idle returned to the Copiah Country tax rolls, with businesses either moving forward with operations or ready to begin operations when the status of COVID-19 and other opportunities are favorable.
The new owner of the old Katon industrial building at Lake Hazel hasn't moved forward on turning the site into a magnet for AAU sporting events. Nor has Duct Fab, a subsidiary of Encore Group LLC in Houma, Louisiana, yet launched its planned commercial and residential air conditioning ductwork production at a long-deserted facility near the Hazlehurst South Interstate 55 exit where Cherry Bark once made hardwood flooring. Manufacturing wood pellet fuel at the old Universal building in the industrial park at Gallman also remains stalled as the owners look for financing. A venue for events -- receptions, weddings, birthdays -- is planned at the old Candy Factory on North Jackson Street in Crystal Springs and health-related services are expected to start up at an old Marion Street site in Crystal Springs.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of a once idle industrial building has been the ongoing expansion of Steel Outdoors' custom metal fabricating business at the former API building in Wesson, a 55,000 square foot facility on Highway 51. The manufacturer, which purchased the building in 2019, recently announced introduction of a new metal building products line that will nearly double its workforce to some 50 employees.
Beyond the new business that he expects to emerge at the old industrial buildings, Evans says several other Copiah County companies are drawing up expansion plans that could be unveiled in 2022. He also points to an upsurge in the county's housing and building industry, which he attributes to relocations from urban areas to the more rural areas of Copiah County
"Overall, I can't cry about very much," Evans says. "There haven't been a lot of negatives. We're making the most of what we have and I am proud to be part of a team that gets what economic development is all about."
Evans says CCEDD tells its economic development story to the business community through a web site and Facebook page, emphasizing:
A workforce that is willing and ready to serve employers;
A location near key markets with rail, interstate, air and nearby water access;
Government officials who understand business needs, provide incentives, and facilitate location;
Copiah Lincoln Community College as a leader in workforce development;
Available land that is well-priced.
CCEDD offices located at the Robert Johnson Blues Museum on Marion Avenue at Crystal Springs is an asset as well, Evans adds "We use tourist visits as an opportunity to talk about Copiah County as a good place to do business," he explains.
At CCEDD, Evans is assisted by Brenda Harper. Five board members appointed by each Copiah County supervisor oversee their work. The board members are James Mitchell of Copiah Bank; Michael Hutchison of Trustmark Bank; Jerry Hood, a business leader; Chris Palmer, retired Crystal Springs police officer; and Jimbob Brock, a builder.
Contact Evans for information at 601-421-1249.