Don’t let economic news fool you

Published 12:09 am Friday, November 28, 2008

The sign on the door sent a clear message Tuesday afternoon.

As other downtown shop owners were preparing their stores for the busy Thanksgiving weekend, one store sat in pitch-black darkness — the doors locked to potential shoppers.

As I reached for the door handle, the letter-size piece of paper caught my eye.

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“Closed due to the economic crisis,” it said.

If the words didn’t cause alarm, the computer generated image of a man pulling his hair out in frustration did.

The store had cut its business hours in half, no doubt trying to target the weekend when tourists and locals were most likely to be shopping.

“It really is that bad,” I thought as I walked away looking for another store.

Shoppers who happened to see that sign must have reacted similarly, mentally tightening the grip on their wallets as they walked by.

The sign was real evidence that hard times had finally hit. Or was it?

For months, news of a looming financial crisis has been trumpeted from national media outlets. Newspaper, television, Internet, radio — there has been no refuge from the steady drumbeat of bad news. Words like recession, depression and bailout are commonplace in conversations on the street.

As Wall Street numbers spiral downward one day and shoot up the next, it is hard not to run to the bank, take out everything in savings and tuck the money between the mattresses.

Yet, such troublesome news may not tell the whole story about the local economy. There is some positive news.

Known to buck the trends, Natchez and all of Southwest Mississippi lead the state in retail sales tax collections since July.

In Tuesday’s Board of Alderman meeting City Clerk Donnie Holloway announced an 8-percent jump in sales tax numbers for the month of October. That is compared to a .09-percent drop for the entire state.

Of all of the cities in state, Natchez recorded the highest increase in retail sales tax revenue for the four-month period ending in October, according to the Mississippi State Tax Commission.

While areas like Hattiesburg, Oxford and the Gulf Coast saw their sales tax revenues drop, Natchez has actually seen its numbers increase significantly over the same period last year.

Fortunately, this is not an isolated case. Almost the entire region of Southwest Mississippi saw an appreciable jump in retail sales. Brookhaven, McComb and Woodville all benefited from higher sales tax numbers in the last four months over the same time period last year.

Some of this may be due to the inflow of visitors from Hurricane Gustav. Historically, we have seen a similar jump in numbers after hurricanes. Even still, it remains a bright spot amid the daily dismal reports from the rest of the country.

As that sign in the downtown shop window attests, much of our economy is run on emotion. The steady drumbeat of bad news, despite contradicting statistics, still holds great sway over how business owners and shoppers react.

While the current national problems are very real and will no doubt have an effect on our local economy, we must remember that what we hear from Washington should not be the economic indicator for Natchez.

Now more than ever is the time for shoppers to patronize local businesses. Dollars injected into the local economy translate directly into additional money for the paving of roads and the upkeep of vital city services.

Instead of succumbing to the incessant yammer of 24-hour cable and radio talk shows, let’s continue doing what we already are doing — being a leader in the state’s economy.

Doing so will benefit us all.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or