GULFPORT — Michael Olivier, long-time executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC), has left South Mississippi to become secretary of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development. Last Wednesday was his last day here after nearly 18 years.
The 53-year-old Olivier is returning to his home state where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. He served as director of the Lafayette Development Foundation before moving to Harrison County in 1987. A certified economic developer, he has led Harrison County to become one of the state’s leading economic engines.
Bruce Frallic, executive director of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, moved to the Coast from Hattiesburg one year before Olivier arrived and worked closely with him from day one. He says Olivier recognized the value of air transportation in the economic development equation and put it at the top of the list.
“We achieved a lot because of that,” he said. “His leadership and cooperation contributed to long and lasting relationships that enabled us to work on projects together. He was a great compatriot in economic development and has built a strong organization.”
Frallic said the airport, state port and HCDC worked together to create Foreign Trade Zone number 92 and to expand it into one of the most successful in the nation with almost 5,000 acres.
Fellow professional Hal Walters, executive director of the Hancock County Ports and Harbor Commission, has also worked with Olivier a long time. He said Olivier was instrumental in getting the Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance, made up of the six coastal counties, started.
“In my view, he’s the consummate professional in economic development and has done an outstanding job for Harrison County,” Walters said. “The loss is not only to Harrison County but to the whole Gulf Coast. I wish him well.”
One of the most recent companies recruited by Olivier is Future Pipe Industries. The international manufacturer is building a plant in Gulfport that will employ 300 people.
Plant manager Mazen Turk, a native of Lebanon who moved to South Mississippi from New York City, said, “It is a pleasure and honor to be able to comment about Michael Olivier. Throughout my career, I have met a lot of business people all over the world and he is among the best. He took it upon himself to make us feel at home on the Coast. I appreciate it and my company does too. We’re sorry to see him go.”
David Kolzow has spent 30 years in the economic development business in several roles that have included consulting, working in site selection and chairman of the Department of Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi where Olivier served on the advisory board. Kolzow has had a long relationship with Olivier, first working with him in Lafayette and also on the Coast.
“I have done a number of things with him and respect him as one of the best in the country,” he said. “Michael Olivier has done well at building relationships with companies and individuals and the Gulf Coast is doing a lot better than the rest of the state.”
He credits Olivier for the major task Harrison County has done in owning and managing a lot of property. He says it’s important to understand what you have and that infrastructure must be built to be prepared for industry.
Kolzow said there’s a different mindset for economic development now, one that people often don’t understand. There’s a shift from hunting and gathering to gardening and nurturing, something he says Olivier understands.
“There’s not that much out there anymore,” he said. “Counties must grow, companies they already have and new manufacturing jobs are coming from outside the country. Those relationships must be built and it takes many years.”
He said Harrison County should not look for a door knocker or salesman in searching for a new economic development leader.
“The biggest mistake counties make is not knowing the kind of person they need,” Kolzow said. “We’re finding more and more that economic development really needs a facilitator, someone who can build bridges, be collaborative and willing to be responsible in today’s economy. It’s not razzle-dazzle that does it and it’s not a slick person that’s needed.”
He added that he thinks it’s critical to get consensus from the community and key business leaders before hiring an executive director for HCDC.
Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rocko says the HCDC will recommend a new director who must be voted on by the Board of Supervisors. She has known Olivier for 17 years and has often been at odds with him since she became a supervisor.
“Since I came on the board in 2000, I have been extremely frustrated with HCDC and the leadership of Michael Olivier because of the lack of accounting, disregard for lawful procedures, secrecy and wasteful spending,” she said. “These things could have been corrected to move Harrison County forward in economic development.”
She says her feelings were never personal, and she hopes the county can have a clean slate and begin to take economic development to an extraordinary level with the realization of moving from an industrial base to a service base.
“I am ready to move on. We need to look at things from a new perspective,” she said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.