GULFPORT — Larry Barnett’s first year as executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) has been a busy one indeed. The Biloxi native assumed the position at a crucial time in the county’s history. In addition to post-Katrina challenges and opportunities for the area, he came into an agency that had been riddled with political squabbling and had lost several key staff members, including the longtime director.
Barnett, who considers relationship building one of his strengths, took the job determined to make things better. The 50-year-old worked in economic development for 20 years, most recently with Mississippi Power Company where he also worked in marketing and management positions. Additionally, he worked closely with the regional Alliance for Gulf Coast Economic Development.
Moving from the private sector to the public has made a difference. “Things are going well, but it’s definitely been an adjustment,” he said. “It’s a matter of changing my way of thinking. Things don’t move as quickly. Decisions are made differently because the public has a right to know and the process is different. There are 12 commissioners and a process to go through to get things approved, and there are certain guidelines to go by.”
He has no regrets at all and finds economic development an exciting field. “There are so many ways you can go,” he said. “We’re helping create jobs, wealth and a better quality of life for people. I’ve been pleased with the move to this job. Although it’s not without challenges, I’m having fun.”
Barnett feels the relationship with the commission and the Harrison County Board of Supervisors is the best it’s been in a long time. “We’ve worked hard on it for a year and feel very good about it,” he said. “I try to communicate with the board regularly and try to go to a meeting once a month. They call from time to time individually. We communicate and I try to keep them informed.”
All staff positions are filled for a total of nine positions.
“Each person has different talents so we have a good mix and have what we need,” the director said.
Barnett said he was surprised with the recent and ongoing controversy to create a new county-owned industrial park in the Saucier area of northern Harrison County with the purchase of 627 acres. Industrial land has been a crucial need for several years in the rapidly growing county.
“We’re looking at moving the county forward by addressing the land issues,” he said. “In the midst of buying additional property, we’re trying to do the right thing and sometimes there’s opposition.”
The county is short on large sites owned and controlled by the county. The largest existing tract of land now available is 35 acres. Barnett says the commission has had to turn away some prospects looking for large tracts of land.
He goes on to say that he is an upfront person with good intentions of trying to do what’s best for the county. “I was surprised at the opposition. I say that knowing that everyone comes from different perspectives,” he said.
The county zoning board approved the purchase but a group of residents went to the board of supervisors with an appeal. The supervisors turned down the appeal, and now the residents have appealed to the Harrison County Circuit Court.
“We sit by and wait for the court to take up the case, and we don’t know how long it will take,” Barnett said. “We’re at the mercy of the court.”
As for the area’s hurricane recovery, he notes the labor and housing shortages. Other organizations are dealing with solving the housing issue, but the HCDC is focusing on land issues and bringing in new industries. It recently held a job fair that was a tremendous success with 145 companies participating.
“We have some nice industry prospects,” Barnett said. “We just completed a program of work and will be working with our six-county region on some targeted industries.”
Those targeted industries include aerospace, shipbuilding, advanced materials (includes composites), marine biotechnology to go with the oceanographic efforts underway at Stennis Space Center and geospatial (earth imaging and remote sensing).
“We’re looking at the business technology center for small businesses and entrepreneurs to see what more we can do to make it grow,” he said. “We’re working on knowing our existing industries better while also building new relationships and understanding our industrial base better with the new staff.”
Barnett says it’s been a rewarding year with two good-size manufacturers locating in Harrison County, each with a sizeable value. Both, Gulf Ship and Soprema, are located in the Bayou Bernard Industrial Seaway.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.