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Hattiesburg shines with massive new solar farms and jobs growth

CHAD NEWELL

CHAD NEWELL

By BECKY GILLETTE / Hattiesburg Business Today

The greater Hattiesburg area is quickly becoming a solar hub of the state and region with two, $100-million solar farms covering 1,000 acres current under construction that are expected to come online producing 100 megawatts of electricity by the summer of 2017, said Chad E. Newell, president of the Area Development Partnership (ADP).

“We’ve had an inordinate amount of growth with new solar farms locating in our area,” Newell said. “Silicon Ranch, which is headquartered in Nashville, is investing $100 million in a facility in south Hattiesburg in Forrest County. Origis Energy based out of Belgium is investing $100 million in a solar farm in the north part of our metro area up near Sumrall in Lamar County.”

Both project are being built under an agreement for the power to be purchased by Mississippi Power Company.

“Kudos to Mississippi Power for diversifying its power generation mix,” he said. “Mississippi Power has signed 25-year purchase agreements with these companies. The facilities could have been anywhere in Mississippi Power’s service territory. We worked closely with the companies in the due diligence process, selling them on the benefits of locating in Greater Hattiesburg.”

Newell said the solar facilities will enhance industrial recruitment as a lot of global companies as part of social responsibility want to invest in areas with green energy on the grid. Solar is increasingly popular for generating alternative energy as prices have decreased to the point that it is now competitive with other traditional sources of power generation.

The project is generating hundreds of construction jobs. Newell said in addition to stimulating the construction market, there is a multiplier effect generating business for local hotels, restaurants and retailers. And although solar farms don’t create a large number of permanent jobs, the impact on schools is expected to be very beneficial.

“These projects generate an inordinate amount of property taxes for schools,” Newell said. “This is a big benefit for area schools to have unexpected revenue coming on line.”

Another big development is the Italian paper company Sofidel, a family firm that is planning to invest about $120 million over five years in a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Hattiesburg, has hired 130 employees in the past year. The factory at the Forrest County Industrial Park is producing paper products such as napkins, tissues and paper towels for the domestic market.

“This is an advanced manufacturing facility with a lot of programmable local controls for operating the factory,” Newell said. “Sofidel is quickly becoming a premier employer in Greater Hattiesburg.”

In addition to attracting new industrial developments, Newell said ADP has a focus on growing existing industrial, commercial and healthcare related businesses. The sum total, he said, shows that Hattiesburg is leading jobs growth in Mississippi.

“When you look at the past 12 months, 1,300 net new jobs were created in Hattiesburg representing a 2.1 percent increase in our employment base,” Newell said. “The State of Mississippi over the same time period lost 2,700 jobs, a .2 percent reduction in state jobs. Hattiesburg is far outpacing the state. We are a gem in Mississippi.”

The success in 2012 follows a five-year upward trend.

“One very interesting statistic is that we have tracked 4,000 new jobs and $2 billion in capital investment over the past five years,” Newell said. “Those are huge numbers for a metro area with a 150,000 population base.”

On the mixed-use development side, results are piling up for plans to redevelop Midtown Hattiesburg, which is the area just south of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and north of Forrest General and Hattiesburg Clinic with Highway 49 as the eastern boundary.

“This area has about 7,000 employees and 14,000 students, so it is an economic engine for us,” Newell said. “We decided as a community to put together a master plan for this area in cooperation with USM and Forrest General. We overlaid this with a tax increment financing (TIF) district to encourage developers. We now have a new, $34-million mixed-use development on seven acres called the District at Midtown. It is going to be anchored by a Hotel Indigo, a high-end boutique hotel. It will be the first Hotel Indigo in Mississippi.”

Newell said the district will also include restaurants, apartments and retail.

“It creates that whole walkable, bikeable, mixed-use environment between large anchor employers,” Newell said.

Looking ahead, Newell is expecting that the Eagle One Megasite on 2,200 acres will be a “game changer.”

“We are really going to make a concerted effort to work with the Mississippi Development Authority, utility allies and site consultants to go after a large manufacturer for that site,” he said. “We have worked the past several years to lay the groundwork, secure the property, and do environmental due diligence. Now we are in the promoting and advertising stage. I really think we are going to achieve success on that site. It is just another opportunity to grow the economy in South Mississippi.”

That Lamar County part of western Hattiesburg continue to boom.

“Hattiesburg and Columbia grow closer every day,” Newell said. “And we have also seen growth south of town with the $40-million Southern Bone and Joint Hospital, The Orthopedic Institute. This is one of the few orthopedic hospitals between New Orleans and Atlanta. We are seeing Petal continuing to grow on the north side of Hattiesburg as more retailers and restaurants are locating there. Sumrall is another nice bedroom community that is growing. We are experiencing growth distributed around the metro area, which is nice to see.”

The ADP continues efforts to help small businesses, too.

“The ADP has a small business loan program that provides gap financing that helps small businesses get started and expand,” Newell said. “It helps get deals over the finish line that otherwise might not be able to come together. The loans are made through SEMCIC (Southeast Mississippi Community Investment Corporation), a non-profit affiliate of the ADP.”

Another leg on the economic development stool for Hattiesburg is its program to attract retirees. Hattiesburg is one of eight cities in America highlighted in the January-February issue of Where to Retire Magazine, which has a circulation of about 200,000 circulation.

“Hattiesburg is one of eight cities around America that will be featured in upcoming edition in an article about eight tax-friendly retirement towns,” Newell said. “We have very favorable tax rates for retirees, including homestead exemption for property taxes. It is nice to be recognized by a national retirement journal as one of the top retirement communities.”

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