EconSouth (Second Quarter 2009)
Hattiesburg Withstands Changes Well
Hattiesburg, Miss., is enduring the recession better than most places, thanks to stable employers—including three large hospitals and the University of Southern Mississippi—and a sound housing market, thanks in part to Hurricane Katrina.
The metropolitan area of about 140,000 boasts the lowest unemployment rate (see the chart) among Mississippi's metro areas: 6.3 percent in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, across the Southeast, few places have appreciably lower jobless rates. Mississippi's unemployment rate in April was 9.1 percent, Jackson's was 6.7 percent, and Biloxi/Gulfport's, 7.1 percent. The U.S. rate was 8.9 percent and still rising.
While economic growth has slowed, through April Hattiesburg had lost only about 900 jobs in the recession, noted Bill Gunther, professor of economics at the University of Southern Mississippi and director of the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "It's really a shining spot in terms of resilience to recessionary pressures," Gunther said.
Health care keeps area's economy strong
Thus, federal and state government, including Southern Miss, and the city's position as a regional health care hub have kept Hattiesburg growing steadily, if unspectacularly, for a number of years. Employment and population have stair-stepped in small increments since 2002. Total employment inched up by less than 1 percent annually from 2002 to 2004 and then bumped up to 2.4 percent growth in 2005 and 6.6 percent in 2006, according to Moody's Economy.com, fueled in part by an influx of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Multifaceted economy provides stability
"People come here for doctor's appointments, and while they're here they shop and eat out," Godwin said. "There's a lot of synergy there."
The city's health care industry employs more than 8,200 people who cumulatively earn about $394 million a year, according to a study by the ADP and the Economic Development Resource Center at Southern Miss. Hattiesburg certainly has its share of doctors: The same document cites a report from Sperling's Best Places, a guide that rates the attractiveness of places to live, that says the Hattiesburg area in 2006 had 464.7 physicians per 100,000 people. The U.S. average in 2007 was 312 doctors for every 100,000 people, according to the American Medical Association.
The local health care community is likely to grow. William Carey University, a small private school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, recently began construction of a school of osteopathic medicine. Local boosters hope that development creates opportunities to conduct clinical trials and other research.
Incubator will hatch future opportunities
Moody's Economy.com foresees that Hattiesburg could benefit from the Polymer Institute's potential to attract high-tech investment and the area's low cost of doing business. On the downside, Economy.com cites low per capita income and the risk that no new force emerges to propel future growth. Still, Moody researcher Nathan Topper forecasts that after losing jobs in 2009 and 2010, Hattiesburg's employment will return to the steady growth it has enjoyed in recent years.
This article was written by Charles Davidson, a staff writer for EconSouth.