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MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce goes into emergency mode

Jackson — Hurricane Katrina certainly did not spare the metropolitan Jackson area. Still a hurricane when it reached Central Mississippi, the storm’s high winds brought down trees, knocked out power and caused a fatality in the Belhaven area of the Capital City.

However, compared to the devastation to the city’s south, especially Hattiesburg/Laurel, the Mississippi Gulf Coast cities and New Orleans, Jackson came through relatively unscathed, and is now a major place of refuge for displaced persons from both Mississippi and Louisiana.

As the first metropolitan area north of the affected areas, Jackson also offers a prospective site for businesses looking to set up shop at least temporarily while recovery efforts get underway and continue. Just as it is with the general population of displaced persons, some of these companies are from flood-torn New Orleans, and metro Jackson offers them a relatively close — and dry — place to get back to work now while their permanent home is cleaned up and revitalized, an effort that could take months, perhaps years.

“I wouldn’t say we have just been inundated, but we have received inquiries,” said Duane O’Neill, president of the MetroJackson Chamber. O’Neill added most of those inquiries have come from former New Orleans-based businesses.

The chamber has also been receiving inquiries predominantly from those companies that will be involved in the reconstruction process — housing component distributors, temporary housing companies, etc., among others.

Perhaps the highest-profile project successfully worked by the MetroJackson Chamber was with Entergy Corporation. Formerly based in New Orleans, the chamber helped the electric utility company find desperately needed space in the MCI headquarters in Clinton. Not only that, the chamber also assisted Entergy in finding housing for its personnel.

Not business as usual

Since Katrina’s impact was felt August 29, the MetroJackson Chamber has had little time for what most see as traditional chamber activities. McNeill said the chamber has been doing only approximately 10% of its “normal” routine, having switched over to an emergency mode.

The chamber is working with its usual groups and members — hospitals, schools and others. However, the services it is offering these groups is quite unique.

For instance, immediately after the storm Ross Tucker, MetroJackson Chamber’s vice president of economic development, found most efforts to help displaced, needy workers were focused on unemployment relief. He felt there needed to be a job bank, matching affected workers with employers in need of help. Tucker went to the chamber’s membership, found what needs they had for full-time and/or part-time workers, and got that information disseminated. At the end of the first day, Tucker had managed to identify more than 250 available jobs in the metro area.

Another effort centered on available office space. O’Neill said, traditionally, his group works with manufacturers and distributors, leaving commercial prospects to the economic development folks. However, there was an immediate, pressing need to know what space was available in the Jackson area. So, Tucker contacted the Mississippi Business Journal asking for the content of the special publication “Office Space Guide.” He promptly splashed that data up on the chamber’s Web site for quick reference for those looking for space.

Other efforts were even more outside the norm. The chamber worked with area schools, both public and private, to coordinate reopening dates. It also worked with area hospitals, helping them find open gasoline stations so primary caregivers could come and go as they worked to save lives.

Doing its part

The chamber’s members seemed to have weathered the storm fairly well. Most of the challenges came from disruption in electrical service, and its accompanying loss of business, and long lines at the gasoline pumps.

The chamber itself fared fine concerning power. O’Neill said when he got to the office the Tuesday morning after the storm, he saw the lights “had barely flickered.” He said he almost felt guilty to be afforded that “luxury.”

However, MetroJackson Chamber could not avoid the gasoline supply problem. Until that situation improved, the chamber worked with a skeleton crew of approximately a third of its total staff. The chamber rotated the personnel, cutting down on the staff’s need for fuel, helping both the staff and the general, gas-needy populace.

O’Neill said things are slowly starting to return to the pre-Katrina norm at the MetroJackson Chamber, though the storm’s aftermath will linger for some time to come. He said he is grateful that the chamber has been, and continues to be, in a position to help.

“The MetroJackson Chamber is just a little speck in the overall scope of things,” he said. “There are others doing far greater things. We would like to think we’re doing our small part. We’re all working together, and it is a great feeling to help.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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