PETAL, Miss. (AP) Shirley Draughn knows what the city of Petal looked like before the second World War.
And when she sees how much the city has changed, she can’t help but be proud.
Draughn, who was born and raised in Petal, said she can remember when Petal had one traffic light and nothing but gravel roads.
She said back then the city was quite a bit slower — the main business was a mercantile store that sold dry goods, groceries and hardware.
The site of Draughn’s old elementary school is now an AutoZone and a McDonald’s restaurant occupies the site of her sixth-grade school. The old high school has become the current middle school.
The city has grown much since those days — and in the past five years, that growth has been explosive.
There’s been more than $105 million in new construction in 2008, tripling new construction totals in 2007 — and 20 times the 1999 numbers.
While citizens can talk anecdotally about the growth Petal has experienced over the past five to 10 years, building department employee Amy Heath has dealt with permits, zoning issues and construction projects across the city daily since 2001.
“When you look at our charts, you’ll see our construction valuation went up because we had a lot of projects under way in the past year,’’ Heath said.
Much of the $105 million of new construction in 2008 is coming from the 94,000-sq.-ft. Lowe’s off the Evelyn Gandy Parkway, Heath said.
In the past 10 years, the department has issued 176 building permits on average each year. The high point was in 2006 when 405 permits were issued. In 2001, the lowest year, 71 permits were issued. The number of permits issued in 2008 was slightly above the average at 180.
Heath said the permits allow for new construction but also any remodeling or repairs that need to be done on commercial or residential property.
Since 2001, Petal saw the construction and expansion of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Chili’s, Popeye’s, Walgreen’s, Subway, Dollar General and Sherwin-Williams store and the Petal Family YMCA, along with more than 30 local businesses.
Judy McCrary, real estate agent at Ishee Realty, said the Evelyn Gandy Parkway is attracting attention from national and regional franchises.
“In the past the only food type business have been independents or small franchises until Chili’s came in,’’ she said. “Now we’re starting to see some of those large franchises look here like Lowe’s.’’
The Wal-Mart on Mississippi Highway 42 has spawned commercial development as one shopping center was completed that includes a Hibbett Sports, which opened in the last year.
Another second shopping center is under construction. Once complete, the center will offer more than 32,000 sq. ft. of retail space.
From 2004 to 2007, there were 355 construction permits issued for new homes _ compared to only 69 issued from 1999 to 2003. The number of new home permits issued dropped slightly in 2008 to 36, and local real estate agents say they’ve noticed the slowdown.
McCrary said the market in Petal has remained stable through some of the toughest housing times, but the biggest year was 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“If you look at what the market has done over the past 12 months, compared to the national market, we haven’t suffered nearly as much. Now this last year was not as good as the year after Katrina,’’ she said.
The year after Katrina did serve as a huge boon to Petal in regard to sales tax. Petal saw a 21 percent increase in sales tax revenue from 2005 to 2006 going from $1.479 million to $1.795 million, according to statistics from the Mississippi State Tax Commission.
Sales tax revenue has increased every year since 2003 at rates ranging from 4.7 percent to 21.3 percent annually.
Alderman James Moore said the consistency provides for positive thinking in decision-making at city hall.
“We never want to budget on money we think we’re going to get, but there’s no way you can’t be optimistic when you look over by Wal-Mart and see all of the retail space there. Imagine the kind of sales tax all of these new locations are going to bring into the city even with the economic slowdown the country has seen,’’ he said.
Cynthia Shelbourn, owner of Tropical Glamour on Mississippi 42, said she has seen sales double in the past year — mainly due to the sale of school uniforms.
After being in business for 10 years in Petal, she said new businesses are just trying to keep up with demand.
“The oldest rule of thumb is the demand of the people, and what they want, so business owners have to recognize that and act on it,’’ she said.
Shelbourn said although her business is not located on the Evelyn Gandy Parkway, she thinks people remain faithful to quality businesses in Petal even through the current economic downturn.
Moore said the opening of the Evelyn Gandy Parkway meant growth and is the reason the city is increasing revenue.
“If we were Purvis, Lumberton or Laurel and there had been no development of infrastructure, we would be backsliding, but because of the opening of the parkway, we are seeing this development, we couldn’t stop that growth if we put a tollbooth at either end,’’ he said.
Deborah Reynolds, president of the Petal Chamber of Commerce, said growth in Petal after Katrina was evident on the Evelyn Gandy Parkway, but now the city is looking to diversify growth by adding new businesses in the city’s new downtown district.
“You have to keep a good balance mix of what people want, it’s important in growing that you grow new within the old. I’d like to see more small type eateries, a little more of something to enhance what we already have,’’ she said.
Penny Luckel, chairwoman of the planning commission, said improving downtown is important for business owners who have been in Petal for decades.
“The more vacant buildings we have, the worse it looks, and if we keep letting things go out to the Evelyn Gandy Parkway, people are going to lose what they’ve worked years and years for.’’
Moore said the downtown district will see growth as long as city officials put in the work to develop the area.
“The growth on the parkway is going to happen with or without our vision and foresight, but the downtown will happen only with vision and hard work,’’ he said.