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Survey helps gauge Lawrence Co. needs

FIRST IN A SERIES

MONTICELLO — Lawrence County’s efforts to boost its economy andcommunity services received a positive report in a survey ofresidents conducted by the Mississippi Department of Economic andCommunity Development.

MONTICELLO — Lawrence County’s efforts to boost its economy andcommunity services received a positive report in a survey ofresidents conducted by the Mississippi Department of Economic andCommunity Development.

The survey was conducted in January and results, just recentlyreleased, were compared with the same survey given in 1994. TheCommunity Survey is a tool used by the Lawrence County CompetitiveCommunity Program and county and city officials to guide economicand community development efforts.

“One of the great things about this survey is it is conducted bythe state economics office in confidential interviews with localcitizens, and because of that the citizens tend to really speaktheir minds and give us some very valuable input,” said PaulMcLain, director of the county’s Community DevelopmentAssociation.

The survey dealt with questions that reflected on economicdevelopment, city issues, county issues, schools and lawenforcement of the county.

In economic development, the first questions dealt with businessdevelopment. In 1994, when asked who was trying to improve thelocal economy, residents’ top answers were the CDA, mayor, Chamberof Commerce and supervisors. The CDA continued to dominate in 2000followed by the supervisors, mayor and chamber. Also included in2000 was a selection for “I don’t know,” which was the number threeresponse.

McLain said he was proud to see the rise of the supervisors inthe 2000 poll.

“I think the board of supervisors has played a stronger role ineconomic development (since 1994),” he said. “I know some of mybetter leads come from the supervisors, and I think people arerealizing that. We could not do what we’ve been doing without theirleadership and support.”

However, respondents contradicted themselves about thesupervisors’ role later in the survey when they also listedsupervisors in the top spot in those who are not involved andshould be. The supervisors were also in this position in the 1991survey.

McLain said he thought the contradiction could be explainedbecause, although residents today have a greater awareness of thesupervisors’ role in economic development, some people may notrealize that they provide the major funding for the CDA.

He also said the state department informed him that this was notan unusual result and probably stemmed from the fact thatsupervisors were public officials.

Two of the top responses in 1994 for additional retailestablishments were eliminated in the 2000 report. A discount storeand grocery store were built in the intervening years to drop themfrom the list.

“We did, however, experience the closing of one of our clothingstores, and there is now a lot of interest in getting both aclothing and shoe store here,” McLain said.

A clothing store, the number four response in 1994, moved to thetop of the list in 2000. A shoe store was second on the 2000list.

Clothing was the subject of a second question on the report thatasked where most residents purchased their clothes. The topresponses in 1994 were Jackson, Brookhaven, Monticello andHattiesburg.

The opening of Turtle Creek Mall and the buildup of businessesalong Highway 98 in Hattiesburg and the growth of other targetcommunities caused a major shift in results for the 2000 poll. Therecent report lists Brookhaven in the top spot followed byHattiesburg, Jackson, McComb and Monticello.

“It shows we do have some room for improvement locally in thisarea,” McLain said.

There was also a significant increase in the number of residentswho said they have witnessed economic growth during the past 10years. In 1994, 43 percent said they had while more than 61 percentsaid the same in 2000.

McLain said he felt that was partly because the CDA becameofficial during that time. It was started as a volunteerorganization in 1993 and became an official county agency inFebruary 1995. Other government and public groups have made stridesas well, he said.

“It shows there is a commitment among the county and chamberelected officials,” McLain said. “The public is acknowledging thisand noticing things have happened in the past ten years.”

A significant increase was also perceived in the cooperationbetween county leaders and officials. A resounding 60 percent saidin 1994 that county leaders did not cooperate with each other. Thisdropped to 26 percent in 2000.

“There was a dramatic increase from 28 to 50 percent in thosewho saw cooperation,” McLain said. “I think we can attribute thatto the Competitive Community Program, which is now in its sixthyear. It’s a program which brings volunteers, community leaders andofficials together from all parts of the county, and they get toknow one another and learn to work together.”

McLain said the Kellwood Manufacturing closing put a damper on aquestion that should have had a positive response. When asked ifthere was sufficient employment opportunities, results dropped from9 percent in 1994 to 3 percent in 2000 despite the addition ofseveral new industries. Kellwood announced their closure inDecember 1999 with planned layoffs through February 2000.

“This would have been interesting if it was done before theKellwood closing, but it is a snapshot of the time,” McLain said.”I think the announcement of the closing only a month before thesurvey and the layoffs coming in February probably brought thisstatistic down.”

He agreed, however, that the county still needs a wider rangeand variety of employment opportunities, including higher payingjobs. He said the county is actively pursuing industries to meetthis need.

The county did meet a need addressed by residents in 1994 inresponse to recreational facilities, but the demand increaseddespite their efforts. In 1994, 85 percent said that there were notenough recreational facilities and mentioned parks and a golfcourse as two of the chief desires.

The need was met with the addition of Cooper’s Ferry Park inMonticello and the Swan Lake Golf Course, but respondents to the2000 report were not impressed — nearly 92 percent saidrecreational facilities were still needed.

McLain said that the shift on the 2000 report showed a desirefor more indoor activities, such as a skating rink, swimming pooland other youth activities.

McLain said one negative result may be the result of theirefforts. In 1994, 60 percent said there were enough culturalactivities available to them, but in 2000 it dropped to 25percent.

The CDA director said that could be a result of higherexpectations and awareness because of the creation of the CivicCenter Playhouse in that time. He also said it could beanticipatory with work progressing on the Lawrence CountyMuseum.

“Maybe people have been exposed to more and they want more,” hesaid.

In all, however, McLain said he was pleased with the report, butthey still had work to do.

“I was glad to see some of the concerns in ’94 have beenaddressed, but there are several issues which are being addressedor still need to be addressed,” he said.