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Mississippi County Plotting to Pump Up Population

4 min read

Mississippi County is hatching long-term plans to spark population growth to go with the county’s job growth.

Bolstered on the jobs front by the presence of major steelmakers and affiliated businesses, the county is studying ways to attract younger residents after years of declining overall population.

“We’re putting our thoughts together and looking at it in a new way,” Mississippi County Judge John Nelson said.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures show an estimated 2018 population of 41,329, an 11.3% drop from the 46,480 count of 2010. But there has been a decade-by-decade drop at least since 1960, when the population was 70,174, a 14.81 percent drop from 82,375 in 1950.

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The declining numbers exist in the face of the county’s status as one of the largest steel-producing counties in the U.S., thanks to the presence of  Nucor Corp. and Nucor-Yamato in Blytheville, Big River Steel in Osceola and steel accessories makers like Telling Industries in Osceola.

“We’ve done a spectacular job on marketing industry here in Mississippi County,” Nelson said. “We’ve invested $31 million and we’ve created 3,600 jobs and that has an annual payroll of $120 millon. … That’s a 4,000% return on investment.”

Incentives recently authorized by the Great River Economic Development Foundation will help create 65 jobs, running the total number added this year to 325.

“We’re winners in the job creation business,” Nelson said.

Now the county is moving into the population growth business.

The county is working with Arizona-based consulting firm TadZo and has created a Tactical Planning Task Force to study the needs and amenities that might drive a population influx.

“There was a time when you had jobs in your community that just automatically meant your population was going to grow,” Nelson said. “But young people now are different than they were 50 years ago. They’re much more mobile. They’re much more quick to decide to move from here to there.

“They enjoy that type of thing. They’ve got their ideas of what makes living in a certain community better here than over there.”

The task force is composed of 25-30 young people from around the county who, Nelson said, have shown an interest in taking an active role in the county’s future. The goal is to create a long-term strategic plan to lure residents and a shorter-term tactical plan that will tailor itself to specific communities, cities and even geographic areas.

While he personally enjoys the local, rustic and rural environment, Nelson said Mississippi County must offer a different set of attractions and amenities to younger professionals.

“I think young people may look at it in a different way,” Nelson said. “I think they would embrace movie theaters, sushi restaurants, outside eating areas. Maybe bars and restaurants that have a lot of magnetism to it. And I think maybe we’re going to get the answers and start looking at some of this stuff.”

Nelson said the strategic plan could take as long as 20 years and estimated the tactical plan might cover a range or 12 years or fewer.

“I don’t think it would be out of the realm of possibility that they start with one individual or one family and then recruit them to come and live here,” Nelson said. “And then after we get them there we build those amenities that are going to make them happy here. … You make that family happy and then you move two more in.”

The communities of Wilson and Manila have bucked the county’s declining population trends, losing only a handful of residents the past few years.

Wilson, the former company town backed and developed by the Lawrence Group, offers its unique, Tudor architecture and a number of upscale, eclectic attractions to establish itself as a distinct and peaceful community for living and tourism.

Manila, a commuter community for Blytheville and Osceola, built 80-100 new homes last year, Nelson said, as well as a new, $20 million school and made major improvements to water and sewer systems.

Those communities, and others around Mississippi County, may offer ideas and inspiration to the task force. But Nelson isn’t anticipating a flood of new residents as much as he is a steady, demographic shift over an extended period of time.

“I would rather them get it right than say ‘We need to do this right now,’” Nelson said. “The future is coming and I don’t see any sense in rushing it.” 

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