Manufacturers say amenities, schools keeping newcomers away|[01/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 17, 2008

Getting people who work in Vicksburg to buy homes here has been frustrated by a dearth of moderately priced housing, but scant retail and restaurant offerings and perceptions about the quality of schools are also keeping folks away, Warren County manufacturers and economic planners said.

In response to a call from Mayor Laurence Leyens to beef up housing availability, the private sector leaders offered their views.

About 5,500 Warren County workers commute to their jobs from neighboring areas, according to U.S. Census data — a figure that accounts for close to 20 percent of the county’s work force, said Jim Pilgrim, who retired as head of the Warren County Port Commission in 2007.

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Increasing the population of Vicksburg and Warren County, specifically through home ownership, is paramount to economic growth, Leyens told members of the Vicksburg Manufacturers Association Wednesday. The meeting came two days after Leyens met with city housing program administrators and asked them to report back with ideas in 30 days.

“We don’t have the rooftops” to interest large national retailers, Leyens told the group of employers. Population is a major consideration for investors in movie theaters, big-box retailers and restaurant franchises.

And there’s a cycle. Vicksburg’s inability to draw theaters, restaurants and other diversions is one reason manufacturers said many of their employees choose to buy homes in Clinton and elsewhere beyond the county line.

Another was education.

“When we bring people in for recruiting, our No. 1 issue by far is the schools. All the people that we hire who have children go to Clinton,” said Dale Ulbrich of Batesville Casket Company, which employs about 120 people in its facility on Warrenton Lane.

Hinds County is home to most of Warren’s commuting workers, followed by Madison Parish and Claiborne County, Pilgrim said following the meeting. Clinton, a 30-minute commute on Interstate 20, is a top draw because of available moderate-range housing and the reputation of the Clinton Public School District.

Employees with children generally follow two statistics when looking at school systems, the manufacturers said Wednesday: high school dropout or graduation rate, and the school system’s Mississippi Department of Education rating.

“It was said today that a lot of the problem with the school system is perception of the school system rather than quality,” Pilgrim said.

Warren County schools have a graduation rate of 77 percent, according to Public School Review, and a Level 3 rating from the Mississippi Department of Education. School districts are rated from 1 to 5 based on standardized test performance. Clinton schools have a graduation rate of 87 percent and a Level 5 rating, the highest possible.

Reached this morning, Superintendent James Price said those statistics should not be scapegoated when people buy homes in Clinton.

“I don’t buy that,” he said. “You can make our education system here anything you want. What it is, it’s a perception.”

Price said state calibrations are an arbitrary way of evaluating a school’s effectiveness.

“When people take the time to come see us, to see what we offer, they come here,” he said. “We work with the total child. We’re not trying to get one test score one time.”

He noted that it isn’t surprising that many Clinton residents commute to jobs elsewhere. “There’s not a lot of industry there.”

These days, even basic-level manufacturing jobs demand literacy and some computer proficiency, said Mike Cappaert, owner of Cappaert Manufactured Housing on U.S. 61 South, as inventory systems become automated and regulatory agencies require more and more documentation.

“We have applicants coming in that came out of the Vicksburg school system who can’t even fill out the application,” he said.

Increasing the supply of affordable housing — commonly defined as a number that does not exceed 30 percent of a household’s gross monthly income — will be the key to future economic development, Leyens said.

Warren County’s median housing value of $71,063 ranks 11th of Mississippi’s 81 counties, according to census data. The county has 21,317 housing units and a home ownership rate of 68.2 percent. Vicksburg’s ownership rate is 56 percent. Both rates are short of state and national averages.

“Housing is the big item. We have not been successful getting developers in Vicksburg,” Leyens said.

With few places left to build inside Vicksburg, the county is a likely stage for community growth.

Wayne Mansfield, who took over as director of the Economic Development Foundation in October after six years as director of Vicksburg’s planning department, said sewer systems would be a crucial element to building moderately priced homes beyond city limits.

The health department requires a lot size of 1.5 acres or larger to install a septic system, he explained. At prices affordable to Warren County workers, density would likely range “from 4 to 6 to 8 units per acre.”

A countywide sewer system, or smaller independent utilities, could enable the development of such housing.

There are not many incentives local governments can offer to developers, other than assuming maintenance of roads and other infrastructure that accompany subdivision construction.

Pilgrim noted that one factor working against Warren County is its terrain, with costs of clearing trees and leveling steep hills and gullies being passed onto the homebuyer.

And with the national housing market in a slump, now might not be the most auspicious time to be pushing development.

Still, Leyens said Wednesday he is sure there is a ripe market for affordable housing here.

“The City of Vicksburg is very economically stable,” Leyens told the manufacturer’s association. “We have very low unemployment, which makes it tough on you, I suppose, retaining your employees.”

Or as Pilgrim later paraphrased, “We have created more jobs than we have people.”

Leyens urged those in the room, who represent some of the county’s largest employers, to take an active role. “You are the most powerful group in this community,” he told them.

He also made a public service pitch, urging manufacturers to sponsor Vicksburg Habitat for Humanity, the ministry that puts low-income families into homes built by volunteers.

“It’s not making an impact on the whole model, but it’s sure making a difference in individual lives,” Leyens said.