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Southern Miss moves forward with Gulf Park repairs, new site search

LONG BEACH — One of the biggest charms of the live oak-laden campus of the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus was its location on the beach. But that also meant that when Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge came onshore, the campus was devastated.

For residents and political leaders who had worked long and hard to get a four-year college established on the Coast, it was a crushing blow. Some feared that the Institutions of Higher learning (IHL) would abandon the campus leaving the Gulf Coast without a four-year public university again. Instead, the IHL has decided to not only rebuild at the present site, but also purchase 100 to 150 acres farther north for a new campus.

Dr. Pat Joachim, associate provost on the Gulf Coast, says staff members have been working diligently to open more classroom space and remove debris from the damaged buildings. A limited number of night classes are being held currently at Gulf Park.

“We are excited about this next phase of Southern Miss’ development on the Coast,” Joachim said. “One thing everybody needs to understand is that students will not be running back and forth from one campus to another.”

University representatives see the restarting of classes at the Gulf Park campus as a milestone in recovery. Joachim said Southern Miss has been working to expand classroom space since it opened in its temporary location last fall. The university has opened three additional buildings and two new quad units in its Student Service Center in Gulfport, making available much needed office and classroom space. And in the fall 2007, Southern Miss plans to reopen the Gulf Park Library and Advanced Education Center at the campus in Long Beach.

Erin Schmermund, a Southern Miss Gulf Park student, currently is pursuing a degree in accounting. She has been attending classes in temporary classrooms at the Garden Park campus.

“With the trailers and everything, it is just a tight squeeze for all the students,” Schmermund said. “It is going to be so nice to have an actual room to go to now. I was scared they weren’t going to rebuild USM Gulf Park. I’m 23 and have two kids. This is the best thing for me to be able to go to a university close to my house.”

Balancing needs

Balancing the need to preserve the original campus while maintaining an affordable presence on the Coast has been a persistent challenge, said Robert Bass, project director for Gulf Coast operations, IHL. The state has declared some of Gulf Park’s buildings to be of historical significance. Because Hardy Hall, Lloyd Hall and the administration building are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, renovation efforts have been slow and deliberate.

Overall, the costs of operation, insurance and construction have risen dramatically since the storm. Although there are concerns that insurance costs are four to five times higher than before the storm, Bass remains optimistic that a solution will be found.

Bass, who is a former mayor of Long Beach, is charged with overseeing reconstruction of the Gulf Park campus while also searching for new property for an additional coastal campus. The IHL has conducted demographic studies that indicate a growing demand for education on the Coast.

“We want to make sure we anticipate the future needs of the Gulf Coast,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Thomas C. Meredith. “The University of Southern Mississippi is already offering more degree programs than it was pre-Katrina, so we’re on the right track.”

Bass estimates it will take about five years for most of the repairs and new construction to be complete.

“We were hit extremely hard by Katrina, but it has given us the opportunity to start fresh and really be a catalyst to improve the overall quality of life on the Coast and provide some significant contributions to the state as well,” Bass said.

Two complexes that were farther from the beach and hence received less damage have been completely renovated. That includes the Holloway Complex and the Business Complex, which are now hosting night classes. Bid openings were held recently for the renovation of two more buildings, the Advanced Education Center classroom building and the library. Because of the noise and disturbance from the construction, classes are currently only being held at the Gulf Park campus at night. Day courses are being taught offsite at the Garden Park campus.

“We want to have more students on the Long Beach campus as early as possible, but we want to make sure it makes sense from an overall program standpoint, and maintain some convenience for students,” Bass said.

One difficulty with two campuses could be logistical problems for students going from one class to another with only a few minutes in between. But that has been anticipated, and classes will be scheduled to avoid travel issues.

Major decisions

Bass said there are three major decisions affecting Southern Miss on the Coast that have been made by the State College Board. First, the Long Beach Campus will be rehabilitated, renovated and full use made of it. Second, considering what the board sees as the tremendous long-term higher education needs of the Gulf Coast, a search is being conducted for a 100- to 150-acre piece of land that can accommodate an additional campus master planned out to meet the higher education needs of the Coast for the next 50 to 100 years. Third, Southern Miss will be the lead institution for higher education on the Coast. Other universities may also offer classes and programs such as engineering, but Southern Miss will be in control.

Finding large tracks of land on the heavily urbanized Coast is a challenge, but Bass said the board will have a number of very attractive alternatives to consider in making its decision on the land purchase.

Most of the area around U.S. 90 in Harrison County has been slow to come back after the storm as total destruction was seen for blocks inland. It is taking time to repair infrastructure, and insurance issues have delayed some of the rebuilding. In that climate, seeing the Gulf Park campus come back has been heartening to people on the Coast.

“I have received a lot of positive feedback from the local community concerning the activity occurring on the Long Beach campus,” Bass said. “There is general excitement that there will be an expanded commitment by the board of trustees to serve the citizens of the Gulf Coast. “

He adds that the process isn’t just about constructing buildings. It will be a process to see what types of offerings need to be brought to the Coast to assure the proper preparation of residents for employment and development opportunities. It is about how higher education can positively impact the quality of life on the Gulf Coast.

“Katrina was one of the worst things imaginable that could have happened to a community,” Bass said. “But 10 years from now, I think we are going to be able to look back and see that Katrina created opportunity for presentation of a lot alternatives we here on the Gulf Coast would not have had but for Katrina’s occurrence.”

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

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