Good Times Roll in River Delta and Golden State

Welfare lists shrink and construction booms as Mississippi logs growth unparalled in decades

SPROUTING like dandelions on former farmland, the subdivisions boast regal names like Golden Pond Estates and Windsor Gardens. New ranch and two-story-style houses mirror each other along endless serpentine streets.

The scene is not Phoenix, Atlanta, or Las Vegas but Madison, Miss., a community north of Jackson, where home and retail construction is booming.

''We're doing extremely well,'' says Karin Helms, an administrator for Landmark Homes, a Mississippi building company that has several subdivisions here. ''The market is really hot. It's all because of the economy.''

Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, recently elected to a second term, calls it the ''Mississippi Miracle.'' While some people hesitate to call it that, many economists here agree that the Magnolia State in the past several years has experienced a period of economic growth unparalleled in decades.

Several years ago, for instance, the state was $75 million in the red; today it has a rainy-day fund of more than $200 million. The number of families on welfare has dropped from 60,000 to 50,000 in two years, one of only about three states that has experienced double-digit reductions. And construction is booming from the Gulf Coast to parts of the Mississippi Delta.

Up from the bottom

''We're sort of pulling ourselves out of the bottom of the cotton South,'' says William Shughart, an economics professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. ''It's a fairly big deal for us because we have been on the bottom for so long.''

Driving much of the growth is a gambling industry that has cropped up over the past several years. More than 30 casinos have been built on the Gulf and on the Mississippi River. Revenues have filled state coffers, and 25,000 jobs have been created due to gambling, which has sparked a boom in construction of hotels, restaurants, and highways.

But other factors are also responsible for stimulating the economy, including a growing telecommunications industry, shipbuilding on the coast, a strong furniture industry in the northeast corner, and tourism, fueled in part by gaming.

''Mississippi has grown very fast in the 1990s,'' says Phil Pepper, a state economist. ''The population increased more in the first three years of the 1990s than it did during the entire '80s, indicating there were more job opportunities in the state, so we saw fewer people leaving and we saw actual in-migration.''

While the numbers represent a sea change for this deep South state, they need to be put in context.

Mississippi has the second-highest poverty rate in the nation. It also struggles with a poorly educated population: only 15 percent of adults over 25 years of age held college degrees in 1990.

Although Mississippi's per capita income has grown faster than the nation's in the past few years, it still has the country's lowest per capita income; in 1994, it was $15,838. ''We're gaining, but it's tough,'' Mr. Pepper says.

'Mississippi Miracle'

''If you're at the bottom, it's easy to grow fast,'' adds Andrew Krikelas, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. ''I don't know if I'd call [Mississippi's growing economy] a miracle, but they've put themselves in a position to get off the bottom.''

The real miracle is the dramatic drop in the welfare rolls, says Charles Campbell, associate dean for external affairs at Mississippi State University's College of Business in Starkville. ''Part of the reason for that is a lot of the growth that's occurring is in very low-wage sectors, and that's affecting people who were on AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children].''

Moving up those at the bottom of the economic ladder is an ongoing effort, says Bob Pittman, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, a private organization with more than 3,000 members. ''The community colleges are doing a much better job of identifying employment needs and training efforts to meet the needs of business.''

That effort comes at the right time, because the state is recruiting industry more aggressively, Mr. Pittman says. It is currently courting auto-parts manufacturing companies that would serve the Mercedes Benz plant across the border in Alabama, among others.

Economists agree the state must investment more in improving education and providing a better job climate for entrepreneurs, but many nevertheless are optimistic about Mississippi's future.

''All the traditional economic indicators are pointing upward,'' Mr. Shughart says. ''There are pockets, especially in the Mississippi Delta where the tide hasn't risen very far yet, but overall the numbers look pretty good.''

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