Katrina Helps, Hinders Local Business | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Katrina Helps, Hinders Local Business


Hurricane Katrina is costing literally billions of dollars—potentially more than $125 billion—and at least some of that burden is hitting home for businesses right here in Jackson.

Some entertainment venues suffered tremendously during the immediate power outages and for days afterward as electricity crept slowly back in over the city. People finding themselves with power often then had no available cash as many businesses had no way of paying employees. Even when the checks did come back, many Jacksonians lost hourly wages, along with disposable income.

"We had no business, no lights, no nothing," said Alfred Coleman, manager of Hollywood Video on Highway 18, who says his store went four days without power and is still hammering out dents weeks after the lights returned. "The store was real empty for a while, and I'm still being affected after all this time because most of my movies and new releases have been put on hold, and our central distribution center is just now unlocking it so I can get new movies into our store."
The monstrous gas lines resulting from fuel shortages were no less painful, said gas station owner Surjit Finjh, who runs Jackson Ice on Jefferson Street and the nearby Conoco on State Street, both in downtown Jackson.

Finjh explained that no gas station owner became a millionaire during the days of the mile-long gas lines. Any real profit earned at the store comes from the sale of products within the store, not the pump outside. A long line of cars extending around the city block essentially amounts to a long line of frustrated drivers in a hurry to get their fuel and go, with a bottle of Nehi being the last thing on their mind as they're topping off their tank.

"We make 10 cents on every gallon of gas," Finjh said. "If they pay with a credit card, however, we basically break even. That's just the way it is."

Though few businesses can boast of coming out ahead, some can at least claim they didn't suffer excessively, not with adequate planning.

Kathy McDade, who with husband Greg McDade owns McDade's Food Stores on Northside, Duling Street, and Fortification Street, said they were both prepared and lucky.

"We knew this was going to be bad, so we were on the phone that morning. … We had trucks ready when the power did go off," Kathy McDade said, adding that even though the Duling Street store never lost power, the McDades couldn't keep stock on the shelves fast enough, despite shipping in employees from both the other closed locations.

"It felt like we were in the middle of a war," Kathy McDade said.

Business at the Metrocenter Mall in West Jackson was described as unusually brisk, said Metrocenter marketing assistant Emily Knight.

"Our traffic was and is good. What I'm seeing are evacuees who are staying with friends and family and who are just out trying to get a breath of fresh air. Our attendance is up. We have double the children we normally have, and I think there's a sense of community here. We got to work with the city in getting uniforms to evacuees who are enrolling at JPS, and also they've opened the (one-stop shop) FEMA site downstairs. It's given us a way to open ourselves to the community."

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, said books sales at his store have been suffering ever since the clouds of the hurricane departed, however.

"I don't think people read as many books when they're busy watching the news," said Evans, who has been averaging between 50 and 60 percent of normal revenues. "I wouldn't say it's communal depression, just a change in priorities."

Belhaven economics professor William Penn—while making no references to specific businesses—characterized the hard-hit businesses as a kind of economic streamlining.

"We focus on the negative aspects of natural tragedies, and that's right and proper because we want to help people who are in misery, but there's a kind of pruning that goes on, just like pruning deadwood from trees. This is kind of a cancer treatment where you risk killing some healthy cells along with the cancer cells for treatment," Penn said. "People who were not as productive as they could've been, companies who were not serving as efficiently as they could, that kind of thing. They leave the market."

The market itself is shifting, say some analysts. Evacuees have fled as far as New York or further, depending on available family ties and friends. Jackson had an influx of its own, with hundreds of evacuees temporarily camped out in the Mississippi Coliseum, who later moved to smaller housing or were adopted by friends or friendly strangers.

Among them are business owners who are now contemplating the treacherous downside to coastal living. Ross Tucker, vice president of economic development at the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is working hard to make any relocations, whether temporary or permanent, as comfortable as possible.

"We'd be remiss if we didn't show our hospitality toward them," said Tucker, who explains that the old Clinton-based WorldCom headquarters (now called MCI Campus of Clinton) will be housing Entergy, formerly headquartered in New Orleans. "Nothing's been confirmed, but I think they've brought about 400 people, and those are big corporate-type jobs so probably the minimum income is around $70,000, and this is the lower end."

Breck Hines, vice president of Duckworth Realty, said he only wishes Duckworth Realty had more property to offer.

"We filled up all the space we had in the MCI Clinton Campus. We had 14 apartments coming online in the (downtown) Electric Building, but everything available now has been leased up. We wish now that we had three times as much space because we're getting so many requests from Gulfport and New Orleans. Unfortunately, we just don't have anything left for them to lease," Hines said.

Parkway Properties, known for construction and renovations around the Jackson downtown area, has also seen four companies, primarily law firms, either expand or move into new space in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"We're not comfortable releasing names just yet, but it's pretty much a done deal," said Parkway Properties V.P. Jamie Chustz. "We've leased approximately 20,000 square feet to four different firms as a result of the hurricane. We're working with them on flexible lease terms or shorter term leases where typically we would require longer term leases."

Chustz said the short-term impact of the hurricane regarding real estate is fairly obvious. Economics on a longer scale, however, remain to be seen.

"The longer-term impact remains a question mark. We don't know how many people are going to stay. Some of these people will end up staying, buying houses, liking the schools in the areas. I think there'll be some positive impact, but we'll just have to wait and see," Chustz said.

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