Magnolia isn’t the biggest city in the area, not by a longshot, but the small county seat is continuing to grow, according to Mayor Anthony Witherspoon.
Speaking to the McComb Exchange Club on Thursday, Witherspoon ticked off a list of recent accomplishments for the town of 2,283, including a $1.5 million bond-funded street repair and parks project that will also pay for a new farmer’s market pavilion, plans for new police and fire department headquarters, and the consideration of another annexation near Fernwood.
The mayor said he’s focused on growing the economy, which is a big reason why he’d like to see the city expand its northern border.
Before he became mayor, Magnolia annexed Quinlivan Road to the northwest corner of the Fernwood exit of Interstate 55 to accommodate the construction of a Love’s Travel Center.
Witherspoon said Love’s contributes more sales tax dollars to Magnolia than any other business, and the rest of Airport-Fernwood Road, which also is home to the new Gateway Industrial Park, is ripe for development.
"We already have looked at annexing additionally the north side of Airport-Fernwood Road,” Witherspoon said.
He said Gateway won’t be included since McComb has already annexed it, but the property around it could be of value for future development.
Witherspoon, who holds a master’s degree in public administration, said that when he became mayor five years ago, “one of the things I immediately recognized in the city is Magnolia has to grow. You either grow or you die.”
“The best place for us to grow was Exit 13,” Witherspoon said.
He noted that the amount of available land on the well-traveled Airport-Fernwood Road where Love’s draws in plenty of traffic off the interstate is more ideal than the only other interstate exit in city limits, which is three miles south. Witherspoon said the Magnolia exit has too many nearby houses and an unusual configuration for its ramps, both factors that could hinder commercial development.
Witherspoon said Magnolia is headed in the right direction economically.
“When I took office in 2014, the city would basically get about $320,000 a year in sales tax diversions from the state,” he said. “I thought there was a need for us to create an atmosphere to attract businesses to the area to increase sales tax revenue.”
He said more businesses have come under his watch, although some, including restaurants Porter’s House and Rockin’ Willy’s, have since closed.
But the net result of development over time has ended up with more sales tax money, Witherspoon said, citing last year’s revenues of $580,000.
“That was the result of the board and myself being very intentional about creating an atmosphere in Magnolia that was conducive to new businesses and supporting existing businesses,” he said.
Witherspoon said the city has replaced the public works building, bought a new fire truck, paved streets and built a new park with refurbished tennis courts, full basketball court and new playground equipment. He said the city plans to acquire more land and expand the new park.
Witherspoon gave credit to his wife, state Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, for securing $500,000 in BP oil spill settlement funds that along with $125,000 in local money will go toward the construction of a new police and fire department headquarters in the former Movie Star garment factory.
With a possible annexation to the north, the former factory is a better location than the current police and fire headquarters, both near the county courthouse on the southern end of town.
The mayor said one of the most pressing concerns facing the town is the need to upgrade wastewater treatment.
“We do have an issue that is ongoing throughout the state and that is aging infrastructure,” he said.
Magnolia’s sewage lagoons don’t meet current environmental standards, Witherspoon said.
He said discharges from major local industries, including International Paper, Weyerhaeuser, Croft Metals and Sanderson Farms, exacerbate the problem.
“McComb is the retail hub of Pike County. Magnolia is the industrial hub,” he said.
Witherspoon said city officials must decide whether to build a new wastewater treatment plant or send its wastewater to McComb for treatment at its plant and pay McComb a monthly rate for the service. Either move will require costly infrastructure and additional longterm costs, with Magnolia potentially facing an $11 million bill for the work.
“We are now having discussions to whether it would be feasible or not ... for us to build our own mechanical system or to negotiate a rate with McComb for us to send our wastewater to McComb for treatment,” he said.
Witherspoon said the city also is installing new automated water meters, citing many instances of malfunctioning or improperly read meters and some cases of residents bypassing the meter and plumbing directly into city water lines. He said he hopes the new technology will free up city workers and keep everyone honest about their use.
The city recently secured a $500,000 loan to pay for the new meters, he said.
And despite those major infrastructure projects, the mayor said he doesn’t believe a steep water race is on the horizon.
“We won’t have to have one immediately because accuracy in and of itself will increase more revenue to the city and pay off the debt,” he said.
Magnolia has even installed LED bulbs in street lights in an effort to improve efficiency, Witherspoon said.
“We’re on a trajectory to do good,” he said.