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New industries have eyes on the post-Katrina Coast

You might think that Hurricane Katrina would give pause to new industries considering locating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Not so, say the heads of economic development in Harrison and Jackson counties.

“People are looking and the storm is not keeping them away. I think that is a positive,” said the new executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC), Larry S. Barnett. “I think you would find this in Hancock and Jackson counties, as well. We are continuing to target the same industries we did before: the aviation market, steel fabrication, ship building and the polymer market. The storm didn’t change that.

“What changed is I don’t have an office that overlooks the Port of Gulfport. It overlooks pine trees in the industrial park. There is a different way we are doing business with our location and personal lives. But we are still being aggressive. We are still going after target industries. And the Mississippi Gulf Coast has the same strengths that we have always had.”

George Freeland, executive director, Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, agreed the focus of economic development on the Coast has not fundamentally changed. “Our five-year strategic plan, and the fundamental objectives and strategies within that plan, have not been altered as a result of Hurricane Katrina,” Freeland said.

“While the home building and construction-oriented trades and industries will absolutely occupy a major position in the overall economic development profile of Jackson County and the entire Coastal region, our long-term focus on recruiting and developing a diversified economic base hasn’t changed at all.”

All of the Coast’s competitive advantages remain in the area of transportation infrastructure including highway, rail and deepwater ports that provide access to market combined with prepared industry sites and a skilled regional workforce. There is a short-term problem with labor availability that is impacted greatly by lack of access to affordable housing.

Prior to the storm, and after it, Jackson County was working to recruit a set of large impact industries. Freeland goes into meetings with these prospective industries ready to discuss hurricanes.

“I’m ready to talk about how we can mitigate impacts to their industry if in fact they come here,” Freeland said. “They appreciate understanding that they can engineer facilities and their operations to withstand another storm of this magnitude. But, by and large, hurricane preparedness is not where their focus is. Their focus is on key elements that set us apart before the storm and still set us apart.”

Regarding the affordable housing shortage, that was an issue before the storm, as well, as Coast property values have continued to increase. Freeland said he isn’t sure what the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation can do regarding housing. Most of the housing is going to be built by private developers. Several modular home manufacturers have announced plan to set up factories on the Coast to help provide quick, affordable alternatives.

In the interim before the housing can be built back, Freeland believes that the areas just north of the Coast within an easy commute will help fill the void.

“I think the interior areas like Stone, George and Pearl River counties are going to be key areas supporting the economic development momentum of the three coastal counties in that those northern counties represent areas supportive of available housing needs,” Freeland said. “We’ve seen that coming even before the storm. In 2006, we included the entire six southern county area within the same labor market if for no other reason than it is quite common for a workforce to travel to work across a two- or three-county region.

“Those three upland counties are going to play an intricate role in the region’s ability to provide the housing that ultimately supports a labor force to drive the economic engine of this region. The Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development is a six-county consortium of economic development agencies working not only to recruit new business here, but support the overriding and shared economic development issues.”

Five years of work done to attract aviation technology development to Jackson County will come to fruition when the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center is dedicated at the Trent Lott International Airport April 18. Also, the redevelopment of the former International Paper brownfield site in Moss Point is expected to be complete in the next 60 days.

“It is already on the market, and has garnered a great deal of interest,” Freeland said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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