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Vibrant State Port vital to Coast

Tough to stay competitive in recovery, repair

The Mississippi State Port at Gulfport is involved with ongoing rehabilitation efforts along with implementation of an ambitious master plan. Those recovery efforts and building projects are set to get a huge boost in the way of $600 million from HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) funds that came the state’s way following Hurricane Katrina.

The funds are part of $5.5 billion authorized by Congress and administered by the Mississippi Development Authority. There is some controversy as some observers see using the $600 million for the port as a diversion from money meant to replace lost housing in the coastal area. Others say a portion of the HUD funds were marked for the state port early in the recovery process.

Port executive director Don Allee stays focused on the mission of the port as a vibrant economic engine for the region.

“From my perspective, it’s ready to go. We participated with the governor and MDA and basically it’s based on our master plan,” he said. “We were experiencing growth before Katrina. Now, we need to come back bigger and stronger to be able to handle twice the amount of container capacity. We are losing our competitive position in the Gulf because we’re in repair and recovery mode. The competition doesn’t wait; that’s a fact of business.”

What about housing?

Reilly Morse, a Gulfport attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, objects to the diversion of funds that he feels would be better used to replace housing. “There’s still a lot to be done,” he said. “There’s a sizeable number of people who are not in permanent housing.”

Gov. Haley Barbour’s office released figures stating that to date, the state has put $723 million into programs to restore affordable housing for 17,000 to 21,000 workforce income-level families, and more than $1.3 billion has been awarded for more than 18,200 homeowner assistance grants.

“Our commitment to provide resources for affordable housing initiatives and all other elements of the comprehensive plan will definitely continue,” Barbour said.

Key part of plan

The governor also says the plan to use some of the HUD funds for the State Port was part of the deal from the earliest days after the disaster when residents were sorting through the wreckage of their homes and dealing with containers from the port that had been strewn into neighborhoods.

“We knew it would be imperative to restore the port not only in the interest of economic development but also in public safety,” he said. “HUD’s approval of this important project will allow that to happen.”

Lee Youngblood is now working with MDA but until recently worked for former Sen. Trent Lott where he recalls that the port’s recovery and expansion costs were being considered in 2005. He finds it more in keeping with the intended use of HUD funds than replacing private housing.

“The port is such a large part of the economy and has a lot of impact,” he said. “A lot of requirements had to be met to go through the process of using HUD funds. Normally, HUD’s CDBG funds are not used for housing as has been done to help state residents recover from Katrina.”

Morse, however, raises questions about using a portion of the funds for the port. “Two high-ranking congressional members are calling for more of an investigation into this matter,” he said. “We question the governor’s claim that he requested these funds early in the recovery, and find a wide variance in the amounts needed for the port.”

Allee says everything done at the port is costly as it must be built to strong standards and the price of materials has increased. At one point, the figure was looming at $900 million rather than $600 million. The organization’s master plan, he said, was painfully re-visited after the storm.

“It took a lot of time and planning to develop it,” he said. “If you don’t live it every day, it’s hard to understand why it takes so much money. We knew we needed federal assistance and thought at one point it might be through FEMA.”

Working with the governor and MDA, Allee says the port thinks it’s appropriate for this serious piece of business to use HUD’s CDBG funds.

“This is one of the crucial infrastructures that needs to be replaced,” he said. “We’re charged with bringing this port back with strategic growth to remain competitive with Houston, New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa in this world of an expanded Panama Canal and international trade.”

Allee explains that the funds will be used to retain the value of a major seaport that’s involved in international commerce and the types of high-paying jobs the state needs. Prior to Katrina, the port accounted for 3,200 maritime-related jobs in addition to jobs generated by companies depending on the port. With the restoration and expansion, the port will account for 4,900 jobs within five years and 5,400 within 10 years.

Contact MBJ contributing writer S.J. Anderson at andersonwrites@yahoo.com .

About Lynn Lofton

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