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State Port’s proposed $600-million upgrade would double capacity

A $600-million project proposal for reconstruction and expansion of the Mississippi State Port Authority (MSPA) at Gulfport would double the capacity of what is already the third-largest container port on the Gulf of Mexico and the 17th-largest port in the country.

The State Port, in partnership with Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), has completed a master plan update that calls for a major expansion of the port that in 2006 handled more than 1.6 million tons of cargo shipping nearly 198,000 containers.

“As ironic as it may seem, Hurricane Katrina presented a unique opportunity to expand and rebuild the Port of Gulfport,” said Donald R. Allee, executive director, MSPA. “Completed construction and future projects will make the Port of Gulfport bigger, better and stronger. It will be hundreds of millions of dollars in the making.”

The Port of Gulfport was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, losing much of its infrastructure above and below ground. But in the two years since the worst natural disaster in the history of the U.S., much progress has been made.

“Since August of 2005, government officials and the MSPA team have worked tirelessly, seeing the adversity as a window of opportunity to rebuild and expand the port,” Allee said. “In a measured and strategic fashion, the Port of Gulfport is coming back stronger than ever. The port has rebuilt 220,000 square feet of warehouse space, and 160,000 square feet more will be added at the end of 2007. Seven berths, bulk facilities, service roads and rail track are fully operational and more reconstruction is underway. Over $70 million has been spent in reconstruction projects since Katrina struck.”

Allee said private service providers are also making a comeback, investing resources to expand and rebuild on and around the Port. The Island View Casino and Resort (formerly the Gulfport Grand Casino) re-opened creating jobs and generating additional revenue. Transportation, logistics and brokerage companies have also returned to the area in large part due to the maritime operations at the port.

“The progress at the port can also be measured by comparing cargo figures,” Allee said. “The port handled over 1.1 million tons of cargo from January to July 2007, exceeding 2006 figures for the same period by 27%. Cargo movement by rail has doubled since October 2006, and container figures have also improved with an increase of 5.5%.

“Vessel calls have improved tremendously since Katrina. Ships served at the port went from zero to five ships a week beginning three weeks after the storm. A continued increase of traffic and cargo is expected for the second half of this year.”

Deciding on a new master plan took many hours of study and consideration of sometimes competing interests. Allee said although that was not easy, the partnership was able to come up with a well-balanced project that takes into consideration the opinions of tenants, government officials and the general public.

“Once completed, the Port of Gulfport will double containerized cargo capacity and acreage, creating jobs and improving the economy of the region,” Allee said. “With such a positive horizon, the port still faces some challenges. Securing capital, obtaining the permits needed for the expansion projects, pressure to complete the master plan in a timely manner and the support of the general public are areas of concern. Despite these challenges, the port is committed and is confident it will emerge as one of the most efficient maritime facilities in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, if not North America.”

Gov. Barbour and MDA have proposed using $600 million from block grant funds the state has received from the federal government for Katrina recovery for the port repairs and expansion. That has been controversial with some legislators and members of housing advocacy groups protesting that the block grant money needs to be spent on homeowner grants and not the port. However, the MDA has responded that sufficient grant money has been set aside to cover the needs of all the homeowners who have applied for the grants, and that is not, as some critics have contended, a matter of “choosing ports over people.”

“The Port of Gulfport restoration plan is not an issue of jobs versus housing,” the MDA said. “MDA has created and implemented first-of-their-kind programs for both homeowners and renters and will continue to do so. We have received over 1,000 public comments regarding the port restoration plan and will integrate these into the final plan.”

The Port of Gulfport restoration plan is part of the original plan that Gov. Barbour presented to the President, U.S. Congress and Mississippi’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee in November 2005. It is part of MDA’s comprehensive plan to address all aspects of coastal recovery: housing, jobs, infrastructure and business climate.

“The funds will be used to rebuild and upgrade the port, restore infrastructure and reduce future risk,” the MDA said. “The Port of Gulfport is currently the third-largest container port in the Gulf of Mexico. The restoration and upgrades would increase the state’s competitive edge and put the port in a position to become the second-busiest container port in the Gulf, creating more jobs and a stronger coastal economy.

“According to an economic impact study, the port can generate up to 7,300 direct and indirect jobs with a salary range of $45,000-50,000. It can also contribute approximately $26 million in annual state and local tax revenues.”

Gulfport Mayor Brett Warr said the proposal to expand the State Port is very encouraging.

“I am excited about it not just for the city, but for the Coast and the state,” Warr said. “It is the State Port located at Gulfport, and that is what is important and what people need to keep in mind. It serves the entire state very well, and the Southeast. The cargo that goes from there is typically from our region, and a tremendous amount of it is from our state and, in my opinion, more of it needs to be from our state.

“The reality is we have to look at what is an incredible opportunity for jobs that this provides and do everything we can to get those jobs. The construction jobs are great. We have had a lot of them and want more of them. But when you talk about permanent maritime jobs, you are talking about jobs paying good salaries in a fantastic career that is very specialized. It is about jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Gulfport’s strategic location is considered a major advantage. Warr said there is not a lot of opportunity in the South for great seaports, and Gulfport has one.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the port had expanded to build a large staging area for shipping containers. Many of those containers broke loose in the storm, and turned into battering rams that ended up hitting some homes and other buildings. There were also problems with frozen poultry from port refrigeration facilities that washed ashore near the port, posing a health hazard before cleanup.

Warr said the city is working with the port to make sure it is more storm proof.

“We have worked with them to encourage them to analyze and create a great evacuation plan for the entire port, as well as how to develop in a way that fits with the growth and type of city we want to create,” Warr said. “Every road that goes to the port leads to our city, so it is important the city is integrally involved in this process.”

The port was established 105 years ago, and is accessed by a shipping channel the meets the Intercoastal Waterway five miles south of the port and the Gulf of Mexico 16 miles south of the port at Ship Island. Plans are currently underway to deepen the shipping channel to take larger ships.
All piers are publicly owned, but most facilities are operated through leases, operating agreements or space assignment agreements with private operators or users. The Port Authority receives no annual general fund allocation from the Mississippi Legislature. Instead, its operations are paid for from port usage, service fees, lease agreements and other user agreements.
For information about doing business at the port, contact Enrique Hurtado, deputy director of trade development at (228) 865-4300, or via e-mail at ehurtado@shipmspa.com. Visit the MSPA Web site at www.shipmspa.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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