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RAND Corporation opens Gulf States Institute in Jackson

Jackson — Mississippi should get a boost in recovering from Hurricane Katrina by the presence of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit major policy think tank that has opened a regional office here. The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute opened its administrative office here in late March to be a part of the area’s rebuilding efforts.

George Penick is the institute’s director and currently the only employee. Plans are to hire about a half dozen local people for this office. “We see this office as a permanent location. It will be here for the long term,” he said. “Other regional offices have 200 and 300 people. My expectation is that this office will grow.”

RAND partnered with seven universities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to form the institute to develop a long-term vision and strategy for building a better future for the hurricane-ravaged states. Jackson State University and the University of Southern Mississippi are the state schools involved. Others include Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, Xavier University, Tuskegee University and the University of South Alabama.

Penick said representatives from the universities will serve on the institute’s executive council that is being formed. The advisory board will also include leaders of nonprofit organizations, businesses and philanthropic institutions.

“We are still working out the details, but we want the instructors from these universities to be involved,” he said. “We will depend on the expertise of each one. For instance, Jackson State is the only one that has a school of public policy.”

Julian Allen, associate vice president for research and economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said, “Though we regret what created the need for such an effort, we are anxious to step up to the challenge along with RAND and the other university partners to ensure the right policies at the right times will take the impacted communities to a higher level of community life. What a tremendous challenge, but what a tremendous pool of knowledge and research capability to make it happen!”

Penick says the establishment of a Gulf States Institute is a natural for RAND because part of its mission is to improve the world. From its work with federal agencies, the corporation sees the need for rebuilding in the Gulf States and wants to be involved in many issues.

“We do research for specific issues to determine how public policies can be improved,” Penick said. “We’ve worked with Homeland Security, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and many others on the federal level. This institute will be very important for this region to have here; to have an international organization concentrate on one region will be instrumental in the recovery.”

With the mind-boggling amount of work to be done for rebuilding, he says the institute will research challenging issues for the three states. Those issues include ways to build an adequate supply of durable and affordable housing; preparing for the next disaster; rebuilding and improving the healthcare system; the costs and benefits of different levels of flood control, hurricane protection and wetlands restoration; options for financing public education in the three states; and actions to improve the performance of public safety agencies during hurricanes and catastrophic incidents.

“We have a lot of issues to deal with to rebuild, and we think we can improve preparedness,” he added.

RAND does reports and studies for clients who pay for the work. Additional funding comes from nonprofit institutions, government, the private sector and other donors.

The Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal requested help with a housing study, which Penick expects to be complete soon. The report is in the final draft now and should be made public in mid-April. It will examine ways to develop innovative strategies for planning, financing and building new housing in coastal Mississippi to replace the estimated 50,000 homes damaged or destroyed. A housing report was recently issued for New Orleans which found that homes of about 55% of the city’s population suffered severe damage.

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi says he is extremely pleased with the RAND Corporation’s decision to open an office in Jackson.

“The RAND Corporation will provide much-needed support to address the region’s post-Katrina affordable housing crisis,” he said. “It is a relief to know that a corporation with such an impeccable reputation for quality research and development is willing to lend a hand to Mississippi.”

Penick became the institute’s first director after serving for 15 years as president of the Foundation for the Mid South, an organization that supports education, economic development and children’s programs in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It is also based in Jackson.

“I have worked in these states and know them well,” he said. “I know the nonprofits in these states and see it as a win/win situation.”

He is a graduate of Davidson College and received advanced degrees in public administration and education administration from Harvard University. He has worked for several foundations including the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund in Jacksonville, Fla.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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