John Howell’s column 6-8-12

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 8, 2012

Panola economic picture appears to slowly improve

The recent release by the Mississippi Department of Revenue showing that sales tax collections in Batesville on March purchases exceeded those collected in March, 2007 was a benchmark worth noting.
Recent monthly sales tax collections have been climbing steadily since precipitous shortfalls during the Recession, and the March figures show that we’ve scrambled back to where we were pre-Recession.

Those figures reflect the local economy — our micro-economy, if you will. And while we are hourly barraged with national and international economic news — the slow job market, the deteriorating financial crisis in Europe — we do well to balance that information with what is going on right here around us.

Sales tax collections are one of the most reliable indicators of local economic activity but there has been a noticeable uptick in anecdotal indicators as well.

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Retailers themselves admit that they have seen a little uptick since the first of the year. Batesville’s two locally-owned grocery stores have seen reason to expand — Piggly Wiggly moved to their new, larger store this time last year and Save A Lot’s expansion is presently underway.

Cube Ice Company owner Dennis Lott will relocate his headquarters and ice-making operation to a new building he plans in the W. M. Harmon Industrial Complex.

“I’m just doing this out of necessity,” Lott said, citing limited production space in the old ice plant building on Court Street, coupled with limited loading space there for his trucks.

Necessity also includes a territory of bagged ice sales and distribution that now stretches from Arkansas to Alabama and Memphis.

These are just three businesses whose owners have taken a risk within their own markets — microeconomies — anticipating that they will need increased capacity to meet growing demand.

City Code Administrator Pam Comer announced proudly during a recent city meeting that three, new custom-built homes had been permitted for construction. Not a housing boom, but certainly a mini-boom after months of inactivity.

Batesville banker Frank West in a recent news release pointed out that now is a good time to buy a home, car, whatever because bank interest rates are at historic lows. Bankers don’t make statements like that unless they’ve got money they want to loan.

It also means that they have a reasonable confidence that our micro-economy will remain sufficiently healthy to allow the consumer to repay the loan.

Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons has already found substantial interest — just like he told us all along — in property in the new Airport Industrial Park. Industrial prospects just naturally prefer build-ready sites where gas, water and sewer infrastructure and roadways are already in place.

Elsewhere among local industries, even with two hobbled, unfortunately, by bankruptcies, there is positive news. Thermos, GE Aviation, Parker-Hannifin and Insituform are among those whose workers we have encountered recently by chance. Production at these manufacturers continues at full throttle, they told us. And last week attorney Al Welshans spoke to leaders of city and county government on behalf of his client, TG Missouri. Parts they manufacture will become components of the new Toyota Corolla manufactured at the Blue Springs plant, he said.

Prices for Panola’s vast agricultural production appear to holding strong for another year. That’s good news for the whole county but especially for  farmers who felt like they were on life support for so long.

At Tri-Lakes Medical Center, owners are negotiating purchase of adjoining land to build new doctors’ offices, making space for additional medical specialists whose skills are badly needed here and also creating jobs for the ancillary personnel required for doctors to function.

These are a few examples of positive developments that impact our Panola micro-economy. I expect you are aware of others that I am not, just as I am sure that you are aware as I am of negative factors.

The point is that even though the world’s economy is more interwoven than ever and what happens in Greece this week will definitely impact us sooner rather than later, we do not need to be overwhelmed by events far away and beyond our control.

To balance our economic outlook, we need also to take into consideration the micro-economy where most of us live and work.

In Batesville and Panola County, that outlook is somewhat brighter than one year ago.