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Region rebuilding, rebounding, looking ahead

Overall, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has made remarkable strides since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region three years ago, and the recovery continues even as the national economy struggles. Construction and rebuilding not only stabilized the economy in the months after the storm, but propelled revenues to new highs.

There are bright spots and some not so bright as obstacles put a drag on rebuilding; the most glaring being the high cost of insurance and lack of affordable housing.

“Generally speaking, compared to where we were right after Katrina or even a year and a half ago, tremendous progress has been made,” says Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “There still remain some very real challenges with insurance and affordable housing that include the price of land and construction materials, zoning ordinances and bureaucracy.

“There’s also the not-in-my-backyard mindset. Pascagoula and Ocean Springs are making strides with affordable housing and doing it the right way.”

Money management

Sanderson sees managing the huge amount of money given to the Coast as a key component in the recovery, too. “We can’t just sit on it. We must maintain a sense of urgency when it comes to appropriately spending this money,” he said. “An example is the $660 million for water and sewer projects in the northern parts of the counties. Those funds will be pulled away and sent to other parts of the country if they aren’t used.”

He is also concerned about the approaching March 2009 deadline for removing FEMA trailers and Mississippi Cottages from the area. Disaster housing assistance that has placed some families in apartments and hotels will end at that time, too.

“We may have 3,000 or 4,000 families without housing then,” he said.

Steady progress

Larry Barnett sums up Harrison County’s status as steadily progressing toward recovery. As executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, he sees needs in the areas of housing, insurance, workforce and infrastructure.

“We are making steady progress toward solutions and recovery,” he said. “The issues will require continued cooperation among both political and business leaders in the region, and just as importantly in the state’s leadership. These rebuilding issues are important for the future of Mississippi as a whole.”

The county has had new industries coming in that include Trinity Yachts and Gulf Ship, each employing more than 1,000 people. But there is a loss with the recent announcement that Future Pipe is closing its Gulfport facility.

“It is never good news when a company announces they are going to close,” Barnett said. “However, the message that goes out from our state and community as a result of this closing will impact how we are viewed by the business community across the country. Our community will do everything possible to work with both the company and the employees to make this transition successful and keep the facility in commerce.”

He adds that the area has been and continues to be a great place to live and do business. “We will continue our efforts to move the Gulf Coast forward,” he said. “The five market segments we have targeted are aerospace, shipbuilding, advanced materials, geospatial and marine sciences. These will continue to present opportunities for our region because of the assets already in place to support these markets.”

Workforce situation

George Freeland says there’s no disputing Jackson County still has some issues to work through with none more pressing than an adequate workforce.

“There is none more important than that but we have a great many reasons to feel optimistic and to point to a fairly dramatic recovery over three years,” the executive director of the Jackson County Development Foundation said. “We could have a whole discussion on that and the cost of housing and insurance.”

He and other county leaders are working with the Governor’s Office and the Mississippi Development Authority on workforce training to develop specific programs to broaden the breadth and capacity of current programs.

“Northrop Grumman Ship Systems is always looking to hire qualified people with the right skill sets,” he said. “New jobs are being added at Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, Gulf LNG and Chevron, too.”

Freeland acknowledges that Jackson County is not insulated from national economic trends, but in spite of that is seeing new locations and expansions. Gulf Liquefied Natural Gas is undertaking construction of $1 billion in new capital and Chevron continues its investment through modernization projects. Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems is set to build broad area mainline surveillance systems for the U.S. Navy.

“Our base in petrochemical and shipbuilding continues to grow, but we’re diversifying in aerospace,” he said. “Our ports and industrial infrastructure rebounded from Katrina in a matter of weeks and are doing well.”

At ground zero…

In spite of being ground zero, Hancock County is making real progress, too, Jack Zink says. New businesses are locating and considering locating in the county’s Port Bienville and Stennis International Airport industrial parks.

“We have three new businesses at Port Bienville, and PSL North America is still under construction. At full employment, they will have 360 employees,” he said. “The Coast Guard Reserve Unit located at Stennis Airpark is bringing in new jobs there, along with the jobs added for the control tower.”

There are 24 new hangars and 20,000 square feet of facility and terminal space at the airpark along with a 7,500-square-foot expansion to the technical center.

Zink, executive director of the Hancock County Port & Harbor Commission, points out that PSL North America expects to produce its first piece of pipe in September and to start shipping in February. The spiral pipe manufacturer was the first new industry after Katrina.

“They will ship by rail and water. That’s the reason they like Port Bienville,” he said. “We have some additional infrastructure projects under study right now that will open up new opportunities for us even though they’re five to six years out.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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