LUCEDALE, Miss. (WKRG) — There is a simple question that leaders of Lucedale and George County have — the same one that every other growth-minded city, county, and state has. And it’s summed up by the chief of the Mississippi Export Railroad — a business that has been at the forefront of George County growth for a century.

“What’s the next customer that comes into the industrial park that’s a jobs creator–hopefully uses rail–but that grows and diversifies the economic engine of George County,” asks Mississippi Export Railroad C.E.O. Kate Luce Bourgeois.

It’s a question that is getting easier for Lucedale and George County leaders to answer–with the completion of a new project that has been on the books since the early 1970s.

“What you’re looking at is roughly three miles of new, upgraded railroad track in the George County Industrial Park.” George County Community Development Director Ken Flanagan is pointing to the new rail spur connecting the industrial park to the rest of the world.

The upgraded track, completed in 2021, serves the existing industries here and is designed to attract new businesses. The hook for the new industry — this track ties into the existing Mississippi Export Railroad that reaches far beyond its relatively short tracks with connections to seven different national railroads heading east, west, and north. To the south are the seaports of Pascagoula and Mobile.

“The possibilities are really exciting when you think about how affordable rail is for long-distance hauling, especially heavy hauling–and how close we are to these two major ports,” Flanagan said.

The railroad has been at the forefront of just about every major economic development effort since Gregory Luce purchased the short-line A & M railroad in 1922 — and began developing it to serve his businesses and others. At first, it was Luce’s lumber businesses that exported timber and turpentine.

But that quickly grew to serve cotton gins, canning factories, naval stores, lumber mills, bag factories, and ship-building plants. That list is from a newspaper article from 1935 extolling the benefits of the railroad.

“The county, what is now George County and the city of Lucedale–the partnership with the Luce family and the Mississippi Export Railroad now has just been vital not only to business, obviously, not only to industrial growth but just the general well-being of the county,” said Flanagan.