• 61°

Stennis Institute study identifies problems

By By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
May 3, 2001
As part of the Grow Meridian Team's plan to increase the city's population, members of the Stennis Institute for Government gave city leaders on Wednesday a less-than-promising report about obstacles stunting growth.
Failing businesses
Dr. Judy Phillips, a researcher for the Stennis Institute, began by telling leaders one reason for the lack of growth in Meridian is a loss of jobs in Lauderdale County.
Phillips said 175 businesses closed in Lauderdale County in 1999 while only 150 new businesses opened. She said the problem is magnified by the loss of many positions in higher-paying fields including manufacturing and management positions.
Education problems
Phillips also said Meridian Public School children are performing more poorly on standardized tests than are county students, which discourages parents from moving into the city.
The majority of children in the public schools were predisposed to perform poorly because they come from poor households, she said, which often leads to "educational obstacles" for those children. Phillips said an indicator of the poverty level is the fact that 63 percent of children in the city schools qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Housing problems
Institute members also found the city's housing doesn't promote growth because the majority of homes are older, and there is not enough new residential construction.
The group suggested the city try to spark growth by promoting more manufactured housing in certain areas, such as around Highland Park where the houses are older and people may not be willing to readily invest in the area.
The idea of enlisting manufactured housing to bolster the city's population and economic base didn't sit well with some concerned citizens in attendance at the presentation.
Members of the institute also suggested that the Bonita Lakes area could be developed into a residential "community" complete with its own retail shops and office space. They were seemingly unaware that a large portion of the property has been earmarked for the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center.
The good news
Although the study brought out many negative factors, the news was not all bad.
Institute members pointed out that inside Meridian there are about 400 people currently renting apartments who could constitute "a potential market" for home ownership.
On the education front, Phillips said recent math scores showed fourth-graders in the city outperforming their county peers. Institute members said they believe those improvements are a result of changes in format, and will hopefully lead to better performances in high school and beyond.
Institute members also suggested city leaders concentrate on developing retirement communities. Phillips said over the course of the the next 20 years, 126,000 people will be retiring in the surrounding counties some of which could hopefully be lured to Meridian.
Phillips said more in-depth concentration on retirement communities would not only increase the city's tax base by creating more homes, but would also lead to more high paying health care jobs.
The mayor's take on it
Mayor John Robert Smith characterized the presentation as a way for the city to recognize its own problem areas and begin addressing some of those issues.
Smith said the institute's report didn't take into account the status of ongoing projects or planned projects for the city, such as the new Wal-Mart Supercenter, the revitalization of The Grand Opera House of Mississippi or the planned Southern Arts and Entertainment Center.
Because some of those larger projects were not reflected in the report by the institute, Smith cautioned that some of the specific recommendations need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3226, or e-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.

x