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From Disaster to Housing Boom, Flurry of Activity Marked ’08 for Miss. Town

Fri January 23, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Neal Wagner

CALEDONIA, Miss. (AP) From tornado damage to a residential housing boom, 2008 proved to be a flurry of activity for Lowndes County’s second-largest municipality.

Whether through natural growth or natural disasters, Caledonia experienced unprecedented change in 2008. However, the sharp economic and population boom of ’08 may not carry over into the last year of the decade, said Caledonia Mayor Bill Lawrence.

While the town has mostly rebuilt from a Jan. 10, 2008, tornado, which struck several houses around the town before damaging the Caledonia schools campus and several downtown businesses, a storm of a different kind may be descending on the Lowndes County town of about 1,200 in 2009.

“The economy right now has pretty much put everything on hold around here,’’ said Lawrence. “I really don’t think anyone knows where things are going, so it’s best for us to just have a good rainy day fund for the time being.’’

Before the arrival of the economic recession several months ago, Caledonia officials were planning several major upgrades to the town’s infrastructure.

“We had a big playground expansion planned for our [Ola J. Pickett] Park,’’ Lawrence said. “It was part of a general-purpose building plan for the park, but it will have to be on hold for a while because of the economy.’’

As part of the building plan, the park will receive a much larger playground filled with updated equipment. Though a park committee has been holding planning meetings and fundraisers for a few months in preparation for the upgrades, the sour economy likely will place the project on a waiting list for several months, said Lawrence.

The economic downturn may have a heavy impact on the town’s exploding housing industry.

During the past five years, developers have constructed several hundred new houses around the town’s limits.

While Caledonia officially has seen a population increase of about 45 new residents per year since 2003, the number of residents moving into houses slightly outside the town likely is much higher, said Lawrence.

“The house building around the town has been holding its own, even though the economy has gotten bad. But I think the economy is starting to catch up to it now. It will probably slow down a lot in 2009; but that’s just my guess.

“Right now, there are six new apartments under construction in the town,’’ Lawrence said. “But that’s really about it, as far as I can think of. Once they get built, that may be it for a while.’’

Though several projects may be placed on hold, at least one major project will be surging forward in Caledonia within the next several weeks.

Despite the recession, Caledonia officials have given the “go-ahead’’ to a $4.5 million water department project.

“The money has already been pre-approved for that project, so we went ahead and gave it the go-ahead,’’ Lawrence said. “We were able to get a 1.9 percent interest rate on the money for that project. You don’t find that kind of rate just anywhere.’’

Once the project is completed in several months, the Caledonia Water Department will have a new, larger water treatment plant and a “much nicer facility’’ to handle the town’s growing population.

While looking to the town’s economic and structural future, Lawrence also took time to reflect on the major events in the town in 2008.

The defining moment of 2008 came only 10 days into the year when an F3 tornado roared through the heart of the town.

After the twister passed, the school’s vo-tech building, the Caledonia Church of Christ and dozens of area houses lay in ruins. However, no lives were lost as a result of the storm — something city officials attribute to excellent planning at the school and throughout the town.

Because the storm occurred in early 2008, town officials and residents spent most of the year rebuilding the ravaged area.

“Everything has pretty much gotten back to normal around here,’’ Lawrence said. “There are three or four families who aren’t back in their homes yet, but that’s about the only thing left to fix.

“Generally, everyone just came together after the storm and helped the town rebuild as fast as it could. Some way or another, everyone here was affected by the tornado. I think that’s why there was such a great response from everyone while we were rebuilding.’’

Since Jan. 10, 2008, construction crews have rebuilt the Church of Christ, repaired many of the downtown business buildings and reconstructed dozens of houses.

While a vacant lot remains where the high school’s vo-tech building once stood, the Lowndes County School District is working to construct a new band-art-vo-tech building in its place.

Aside from the tornado and housing-related projects, 2008 brought a relatively routine year to Caledonia, Lawrence said.

“I guess the biggest thing other than the tornado was that we hired a full-time marshal instead of a few part-time folks working for us. That’s working out real well for us so far. We also got a new medical clinic downtown and a few new businesses.

“That’s really about it, thought,’’ Lawrence said. “Most of the stuff we did was pretty ho-hum and just business as usual.’’

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