Plans for growth on the horizon
By Greta Sharp
Photography by Roy Meeks
“In the next five years, you won’t know this city,” pledges Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, Jr. “It’s where you’ll want to retire; it’s where you’ll want to take a vacation; it’s where you’ll go to conferences. You’ll see a community that is thriving. Vicksburg is on its way.” And the proof is the economic development happening in and around Warren County, including large-scale federal government recruiting, a proposed water park and a school system preparing its students for future job opportunities.
“Economic development touches everything in a community,” says Warren County Port Commission President Margaret Gilmer. The community’s team approach includes the city, county and other agencies, she says.
The U.S. Engineer Research and Development Center, the research organization of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, plans to recruit 500 scientists and engineers in the near future, and ERDC Commander Col. Bryan Green is looking to Vicksburg to step up its housing offerings. “We need Vicksburg to come with us on this adventure so we can attract this new generation of researchers,” he says. “Vicksburg could be the tech city on the river.” The median income for these new positions is $80,000.
According to Green, most of the new hires will be millennials, empty nesters, those transitioning out of the military and DINKs (double-income, no kids), who all place emphasis on proximity to work and quality of life. With Vicksburg’s last housing revolution in the 1980s, it lacks modern, convenient, low-maintenance apartments and homes at appropriate prices, says Green, and people currently looking for this type of housing end up in Clinton or Raymond.
To help meet this need, the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce is hosting a meeting for developers with Green to explore potential housing needs and solutions, says Jane Flowers, the chamber’s executive director. “The Army Corps of Engineers is part of this community,” says Green. “It’s time for us to capitalize on each other’s strengths.” ERDC is also building a $51 million headquarters building.
Flaggs is planning to make a big splash with Vicksburg’s $12.95 million Blues Beach Family Water Park. Scheduled to open in May 2018, he expects the attraction to have a $102 million economic impact over ten years. It will employ 300 seasonal employees and 12 full-time employees.
The water park ties in with the city’s planned sports complex, says the mayor, serving a similar market and having an estimated economic impact of $35 million over five years. “We’re hoping to create a family destination here in Vicksburg,” Flaggs says.
Vicksburg is also focusing on its retail sector, working with a retail coach on a feasibility study and market analysis, hoping to attract franchises and chains. “We’re open for business,” says Flaggs. “I believe the way to grow is to enhance our businesses, retail and tourism.”
The port commission plays a leading economic development role, as the port director has historically been the economic development representative for Vicksburg and Warren County.
“We attempt to understand the needs of the stakeholders involved and prepare a list of suggestions for potential locations based on the type of business they intend to do, how much space they need, and access to interstate, river or railroad,” says Gilmer. “Furthermore, we act as a liaison for new companies and can help them connect with all the local entities needed to establish a new business.”
The port contracts with Watco Terminal & Port Services to manage the physical facilities at the port, including buildings and rail and barge facilities. Vicksburg terminal manager Chris Maxwell meets with potential clients to view appropriate facilities, negotiate shipping prices and discuss transportation needs.
Currently, Maxwell says Watco is working with the port commission and the Warren County Board of Supervisors to develop two new ventures that will bring new jobs to the area and grow the Port of Vicksburg by around 200 percent. “These new developments would also bring with them a new E-Crane and expansion to the current footprint of the facility,” he explains.
There’s plenty of interest in the Ceres Research & Industrial Interplex, says Gilmer, thanks to relationships with the Mississippi Development Authority, Entergy and the Greater Jackson Alliance, where both the economic development foundation and the port are members. Ceres client Mississippi TanTec Leather is planning an expansion, says Gilmer.
Billy’s Original Foods is a local success story, says Gilmer. Following his restaurant career, Billy Lieberman is processing products for distribution to grocery stores. The port is working with Lieberman to find an appropriate building at Ceres, says Gilmer, since he has outgrown the current location on Highway 61 North.
Looking to the future, Ergon is a port client that always seems to be in growth mode, Gilmer notes. Continental Tire is just 17 miles from the Warren County line, and Gilmer thinks the area will attract some business in the form of suppliers and employees who find it easier to live in Vicksburg than travel from Jackson.
Cannon Toyota of Vicksburg and Cannon Honda of Vicksburg broke ground on a shared location on North Frontage Road. Located near other dealers, it creates an automobile corridor easily accessible from I-20, says Flowers.
Downtown Vicksburg continues to grow, adding apartments and restaurants. A new Blues-themed museum and restaurant is in the plans, says Flaggs.
Education is another economic development driver and the Vicksburg Warren School District is making sure each student is ready for the future. This includes job exploration and skills assessment in the eighth grade, as well as the Gateway to College program. This option helps students get back on track to graduate by completing their high school diplomas while earning college credit at Hinds Community College.
To increase literacy rates, Superintendent Chad Shealy says the pre-K program grew from two classes to 13 in two years. “We want to provide quality education as early as we possibly can,” he says. “We don’t sit around and talk about ways to do stuff. We make it happen. I’m very encouraged to be a part of that.”
Shealy is a strong proponent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for both white-collar and blue-collar opportunities. By utilizing professional connections and STEM education, students can enter the workforce in higher numbers, he explains. “Every single person with a STEM background can get a job,” Shealy says.
In Vicksburg, students begin coding in elementary school and can participate in robotics competitions starting in fourth grade. Last year, he says, the first high school-level biomedical class in Mississippi was taught in Vicksburg.
This year, Vicksburg was selected as one of two sites in the country to host the Vivian Burey Marshall STEM Pilot Initiative, a $5.7 million program of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The money will be used over the next four years to improve the numbers of underrepresented students in STEM fields.
ERDC has an aggressive STEM program with the local schools. “They are our future, a pipeline,” says Green, and explains that 11,000 students a year have relationships with ERDC that encourage STEM careers, including robotics teams that compete at the national level, internship programs and summer hires.
Another economic leader in Vicksburg is tourism. “Our revenues continue to grow,” says Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Communications Manager Laura Beth Strickland, who says over the past ten years, there has been a 20 percent increase.
The CVB reported $201,808,459 spent by an estimated 2,000,000 visitors in the last fiscal year, and tourism accounts for nearly 20 percent of Warren County’s workforce. Hospitality Tax revenue in 2015 was $1,190,000, showing a ten-year increase of 34 percent over 2006’s revenue of $910,281.
Visitors can soon enjoy walking trails, thanks to a partnership by the CVB, the city, Vicksburg Main Street, the National Park Service and other community partners, says Strickland. The unveiling is set for December.
Changes are taking place at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Since the mid-1080s, preservationists have advocated to preserve battlefields at Raymond, Port Gibson and Champion Hill to better share the history of the Vicksburg Campaign.
In December 2014, legislation was passed at a national level to label property equaling 10,000 acres of these three sites as core battlefields, and these lands can be donated to or purchased by the Vicksburg National Military Park, explains Bess Averett, executive director of the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign.
Of the core battlefields, some of the historically significant areas are already owned by the state, the Friends of Raymond and the Civil War Trust, who are willing donors to the National Park Service, says Averett. These groups have started expanding the Vicksburg National Military Park to include these new battlefields.
“Now that the expansion legislation has passed, we are tasked with basically building a new national park,” says Averett. “The park will be better able to interpret and tell the story of the Vicksburg campaign.”
It’s also a boost for heritage tourism. “Hopefully we’ll have tourists stay longer and see more,” Averett says. The military park draws 700,000 visitors annually, so even if only a fraction of those visitors travel to the related sites, the economic development impact would be huge.