A group of business and community leaders in the three coastal counties is on a mission to help the hurricane-devastated area rebuild. They’ve formed the Gulf Coast Business Council and intend to speak with one voice to influence public policy.
The new group’s chairman is Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power Company. He says the council was formed somewhat out of necessity because of Katrina. “We have had organizations that served us well, but they were not structured to deal with the vast number of issues we’re facing now,” he said. “The business community must be involved.”
The success the organization can have is in organizing top business leaders in an effective way. To that end, it will produce research to back up its positions. “We don’t have time to be reactive. When we go to elected officials, we must have facts to help develop solutions to problems,” he said. “It’s not always about asking for money. It’s about how things get done.”
The council will function through a paid staff and an executive committee made up of committee chairs. Plans are also in the works to build a facility to house its office along with other organizations needing space.
“It’s part of our plan to have a physical presence. We’re looking for a central location that is easily accessible,” Topazi said. “We’re moving now to identify funding and exploring interest in organizations that want to be included. We know some organizations lost their buildings.”
The selection process to hire a president will begin this week. Topazi says that person should be an excellent communicator and leader in facilitating interaction with business people.
“This person should understand the lobbying process at the state and federal levels and keep the organization running smoothly,” he said. “There is no time to wait, and we hope to have someone in place before the end of August. The pace of change has never been greater. Issues come up every day in relation to our recovery.”
Additionally, he said the organization needs well focused committees and has broadened its membership to speak from all viewpoints. Some 130 leaders from large and small businesses have come together.
Bay St. Louis CPA Chuck Benvenutti serves as the council’s treasurer and says the business community is all about seeing that issues are resolved. “South Mississippi after Katrina has major issues,” he said. “The only way to move forward is to realize we have issues and have a positive plan.”
He noted that thousands of hours of people’s time were spent on the 13 committees of the Governor’s Commission for Rebuilding. “The business council says ‘we’re not leaving the plan on the shelf.’ Yes, we’re going to work to make it happen,” he said.
Benvenutti said the business community doesn’t just look at today but looks down the road at what it takes to be successful 10 and 20 years from now. “We want to make things better for the future,” he said. “All the counties must work together on the Coast.”
Topazi says regional cooperation is the key to getting positive response from Jackson and Washington. “Business leaders see the need and want to work together for the common good. We’re all in the same boat. Katrina has made everyone look at things differently,” he said.
He says it was that spirit of cooperation that helped the regional water system become a reality. “That was one of the most critical recommendations made in the governor’s report, and we’re thankful the legislative leaders passed it,” he said. “Without that, our recovery would not be as good as it could be.”
He hastened to add that all the recommendations are critical and that the master plan is extremely important. The council wants to ensure they’re implemented as intended and addresses the growth requirements as the area recovers.
The lack of adequate housing is one of the major issues being addressed by the group. “It’s a very complicated issue and there are no simple solutions,” Topazi said. “We’ll pick up where the Governor’s Commission left off and tap into the ideas the governor has people working on now. We can at least act as a catalyst for this to happen.”
He said an incredible number of housing units are needed and praised the Homeowners Assistance Grant Program. “We can’t overestimate the value of these grants and the job they did in making this money available,” he said. “People will have an awful hard time getting back on their feet without the grants.”
Key committee leaders include: legislative and government affairs, Ron Peresich and Chevis Swetman; tourism, Dave Dennis and Ricky Mathews; transportation, George Schloegel and Anthony Topazi; affordable housing, John Walton and Duncan McKenzie; land use, Gerald Blessey and Karen Sock; economic development, Johnny Atherton and Dave Truetel; military and defense related industry, Philip Teel and Chuck Benvenutti; leadership development, Roland Weeks and Jon Ritten; building project, Joh