EconSouth (Second Quarter 2009)


Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Hattiesburg Withstands Changes Well

Photomontage of a scientist and an artist's rendering of a park
Photo courtesy of Area Development Partnership
Among Hattiesburg's high-tech initiatives are The Garden (artist's rendering, top), a planned 521-acre commercial park, and Southern Miss' institute dedicated to the science of polymers and high-performance materials.

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
A good deal of that resilience comes from the health care sector. Three of the metro area's five largest employers are hospitals: the largest, Forrest General Hospital, has 2,889 employees. The Hattiesburg Clinic is third largest with 1,783 employees, and Wesley Medical Center is fifth largest with 1,266, according to the Area Development Partnership-Chamber of Commerce (ADP), a Hattiesburg economic development organization. Southern Miss, as the University of Southern Mississippi is commonly known, and Camp Shelby, the 136,000-acre U.S. Army training center, are Hattiesburg's second- and sixth-largest employers, respectively.

Outline of the state of Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Miss.
Population 64,593
Forest County population 78,241
Households (city) 25,219
Median household income $30,773
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey

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, fueled in part by an influx of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Multifaceted economy provides stability
Angeline Godwin, ADP president, said the city's diverse job base—including Southern Miss, the private William Carey University, health care, and the public sector—has blunted the effects of the nation's economic downturn. She also noted that Hattiesburg's "trade area" includes 18 counties—15 mostly rural counties in addition to the three in the metro area—with a combined population of more than 300,000.

"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.

Employment in Hattiesburg, 2004–08
chart of Employment in Hattiesburg, 2004–08
Source: Moody's

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
Southern Miss is also building what it bills as an "innovation and commercialization park" called The Garden that will house a 10,000-square-foot incubator for start-up companies and the Mississippi Polymer Institute, a campus-based organization that works closely with companies that develop and use polymers. The institute grew from Southern Miss' noted School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. The new business park will also be home to the National Formulation Science Laboratory. Formulation science involves blending substances to provide materials with certain properties such as resistance to heat or corrosion.

Moody's 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, 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.