Gulfport — The Harrison County Development Commission’s (HCDC) search for a new executive director has temporarily halted while the organization works to get its house in order and smooth the relationship with the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. The position has been vacant since former director Michael Olivier left last July to assume Louisiana’s top economic development job.
At one point, HCDC narrowed the filed of candidates to five and interviewed those five contenders. After that time, Henry “Tut” Kinney was appointed as a new commissioner by supervisor Connie Rocko. Kinney, a New Orleans attorney who has lived in Pass Christian for 24 years, has been an outspoken critic of the commission and filed a lawsuit over the release of records.
As a commissioner, Kinney presented a paper he calls “Blueprint for the Future of the Harrison County Development Commission” with 27 suggested changes. That proposal is awaiting approval by the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, and until that happens, the search for a new executive director is at a standstill.
Meanwhile, interim director Bill Hessell’s contract was extended to August 1. A longtime resident with a background in zoning and planning, Hessell has been interim director since October 1 and manages the agency’s day-to-day operations.
“I’m here to offer some stability and leadership to the commission,” he said. “I think everything is moving forward and the future is more positive.”
He said the blueprint for action is complete and will be presented to the supervisors at their February meeting.
Kinney said he did not seek an appointment to the 12-member commission but welcomes the opportunity to bring reform. “I hope I can be instrumental in bringing real economic development to Harrison County,” he said. “I think these changes will be approved and the search for a director will start up quickly. Everyone is anxious to move forward.”
He referred questions regarding the search to commission president Frank Castiglia, adding that he feels strongly that HCDC administers public property to the benefit of the public. “I’m working as hard as I can to see that the commission helps everyone in Harrison County,” he said. “I think there’s been some misuse of public funds and authority of HCDC.”
Castiglia, a commissioner for 11 years, says the blueprint is somewhat like spouses renewing wedding vows. “We will be more aware of our mission and what the commission is supposed to do,” he said. “It will open more dialogue and the line of communication between HCDC and the board. Also, any requests for any kind of documents or reports will be handled in an efficient, timely and courteous manner.”
He said the commission plans to have open communication with the community too and is working to get the county back in the economic development business.
“Then we’ll move as fast as we can to fill the director’s position,” he added. “We’ll probably start with those five candidates who were interviewed and go from there.”
Castiglia doesn’t see the position being filled in the next two or three months and says the commission could possibly take more applications.
District Three Supervisor Marlin Ladner said the board will only be involved in approving the candidate the commission selects. “Our concern is that things run smoothly for Harrison County,” he said. “If the reforms are sincerely carried out, that will satisfy many of the concerns I had. The opportunity for that now exists.”
He said the relationship between the two groups may not be a bed or roses but it can be turned around and put on the right track.
Hessell did not apply for the permanent director’s position but says he will reevaluate that decision if the application process is re-opened. Regardless, he plans to have some overlap between the new director and himself. Four other key positions are also vacant, including deputy director, project coordinator, marketing manager and administrative assistant. These vacancies will not be filled until the new executive director is on board.
However, Hessell says things are not standing still. “We’re making progress and economic development is still strong,” he said. “That’s also a part of my background and things are happening.”
At the Gulfport Industrial Park, Gulf Coast Laundry recently purchased two acres of land and made a $6-million capital investment to create 75 new jobs. Hessell said another deal involving six acres and approximately 40 new jobs will be made public soon. Growth is also being experienced in parks in Long Beach and Biloxi.
He said S&D Distributors recently created eight new jobs and made a $200,000 investment, not including the purchase of land. The Maritime Development Center in the Bayou Bernard industrial area has purchased land to make a $1.5-million capital investment that will create 15 more jobs.
“We have some things working to keep development on track,” he said, “and have some smaller deals that are more business/commercial oriented also in the works.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.