Local Economy

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 26, 2008

We’re facing bad times in Batesville? Really?

By Billy Davis

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, speaking Thursday from the Ole Miss campus, urged the national media flooding into Mississippi to search out and report positive stories on the Magnolia State.

Citing some story ideas, he rattled off the coming Toyota manufacturing plant near Tupelo and the post-Katrina rebuilding on the Gulf Coast.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The new GE Aviation plant in Batesville also deserves a story, he said.  

But Batesville seemed to endure its first jab from the national media, now migrating into the state for Friday’s presidential debate, though the reporter said his words were misunderstood.

Describing his hotel stay in Batesville, CNN contributor Bob Greene wrote in a story posted on-line Wednesday:

Batesville is a rural town of around 7,000 people, about half an hour’s drive from Oxford, where the debate will be held. Economic conditions here are, to put it kindly, not good.

Greene posted that story and others from Batesville to CNN.com’s “Political Ticker” Blog.

But even by anecdotal standards, Batesville’s economy is strong if not at least healthy.

The latest sales tax figures for Batesville, reported by The Panolian in August, showed a one-percent increase in June revenues over the same period in 2007. Sardis and Como reported increases of two and four percent respectively.

The state receives a seven percent sales tax and diverts approximately 18 percent back to the municipality where it was collected. The revenue figures can be used to gauge the economic health of a community’s retail business.

In Panola County, the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in August, putting Panola County 48th among the state’s 82 counties. Unemployment numbers here floated between 10 to 12 percent three years ago.

Batesville Mayor Jerry Autrey said he had touted Batesville’s economics to a BBC reporter only days earlier, describing the new GE Aviation plant and coming Toyota supplier Toyoda Gosei.

“The vice president of GE said this is the most sophisticated manufacturing General Electric does anywhere in the world,” Barbour told reporters Thursday.” They’re choosing to do it in Batesville, Mississippi, which may not be the first thing your viewers, listeners or readers might think.”

“We’re weathering the economic storm like the rest of the country, but I told him we’re building a new industrial park,” Autrey said. “By the time I got done, I hope he knew we’re doing pretty good.”

In fact, Autrey pointed out that he and other local officials are in Washington, D.C. this week to lobby Congress for funds to help build a new industrial park near the county airport.

The weak economy has slowed industrial growth across the state, but industrial prospects are still visiting Panola County, Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons has said in recent months.

Owing to that continued interest, Panola County supervisors have authorized a $1 million CAP loan from the state to build the new industrial park.

Greene said Wednesday the 10-word sentence about Batesville’s economy was meant to express the concerns of people he had interviewed in Batesville.

“The people I’ve talked to – and I’ve talked to a lot of them– say things are rough money-wise,” Greene said by phone from his hotel room.

In the story, Greene interviewed Batesville residents, husband and wife Jim Vinson and Peggy Vinson, about the financial crisis on Wall Street.

Greene did not include concerns over the economy in the story.

“I was certainly not trying to portray Batesville as standing out as bad compared to the rest of the country,” Greene explained. Greene said his next story, based on a theme of hope, will describe small business owners who are  weathering the economy.

The only other report from Batesville has come from columnist Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News.

“I’m in Mississippi, and I have only one question: Where the heck is everybody else?” Littwin asked in a story describing the uncertainty of tonight’s debate.

Littwin went on to state that he was staying in Batesville at a “less-than-picturesque roadside motel.”

“But, hey, no complaints. It was the closest room I could get, and I’ve got a nice view of the Shell gas station,” Littwin wrote. “And at least I’m actually in the neighborhood, an easy drive away, and not far from what I’m told is a great catfish shack.”