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Gulfport reaching out with new economic development effort

With hurricane recovery underway and business opportunities knocking on its door, the City of Gulfport decided it was time to establish an office of economic development with a professional developer and a five-member commission.

“We made the determination that we wanted to guide and direct our own destiny and could influence our future more effectively with a dynamic, fully-engaged economic development department,” says Mayor Brent Warr. “Our proactive stance places Gulfport at the forefront of development opportunity.”

Officially named the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission (GRC), the guiding board brings private sector leadership to the process. The members include Don Halle, Don Mason, Carole Lynn Meadows, E.J. Roberts and George Schloegel.

The city did not have to look far for a seasoned professional to lead the development efforts. The executive director, Sue Wright, formerly served as the executive director of the George County Economic Development Foundation in Lucedale and has worked with coastal leaders on regional development. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, she holds professional economic development certification and is pursuing a master’s degree in economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi. She also worked as a regional manager for Litton Office Products and owned Wright Office Supply in Pascagoula for five years.

Wright brings a keen interest and commitment to the Gulfport job. “I have a great sense of professional and personal fulfillment as a member of the city’s leadership team and share the enthusiasm of the community for a truly bright future. It’s the ‘can do’ and ‘will do’ attitude that I like most about Gulfport,” she said.

Her years in business on the Coast and involvement in regional economic development introduced her to many of the city’s business and community leaders. “The whole community has been open and welcoming to my family and me, and that makes work and life here wonderful,” she added.

Wright’s first priority in getting the new office up and running was to execute the plans already in place and develop a long-term economic development plan for the city. The establishment of the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission was an important goal that’s been accomplished this year.

“The commission’s contribution to the growth and development of the city will be significant and long standing,” she says. “I look forward to supporting their efforts.”

Wright considers the city’s location on the Gulf of Mexico as a key connection to the world marketplace a major strength. “It positions us favorably for industrial, commercial and residential recruitment,” she said. “The State of Mississippi Port is already an economic engine, and as port officials and their consultants have described, the largest economic development project in state history will be accomplished with the port expansion plan currently under development.”

She feels Gulfport is an emerging contender for economic leadership in the Gulf Region because of its assets as a population center and employment leader. There are prime development sites, some of which are city-owned properties, giving the city a competitive advantage in a globally competitive field.

“We’re a multi-dimensional city and our environmental, social and economic diversity is a definite strength,” Wright said. “Dominant transportation corridors and new infrastructure installations, along with the port, airport, military, industrial, retail, gaming, education and healthcare sectors give us a stable base.”

One of those city-owned properties is the prime 92 acres of beachfront property that was the former Veterans Administration hospital campus. With many of the buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the federal government decided not to rebuild but to consolidate veterans’ activities at the Biloxi campus.

“The good news is that the northern parcel of the property has already been deeded to the city and we anticipate conveyance of the south parcel by the end of December. Requests for proposals to develop the site will follow in January,” she said. “The mixed-use development opportunities are drawing a lot of attention and interest. This property seems ideal as a premier resort hotel location.”

Wright thinks the nearby Ken Combs Pier where Courthouse Road meets U.S. 90 will be seen by developers as a potential destination restaurant.

“We have identified a few other areas for simultaneous attention such as cultural and tourism development, strengthening and growing our existing business community and building a qualified workforce pipeline,” she said. “The Small Craft Harbor site overlooking the boat harbor and Jones Park is one of the grand development opportunities in the country. Another site targeted for development is the Sportsplex fronting Interstate 10 and near Highway 49.”

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Wright recognizes the challenges of the times and the rebuilding the city still must complete, but she is optimistic. “The city and region are well positioned, even in these uncertain times in the U.S. economy,” she said. “One of our primary challenges is communicating the message nationally that Gulfport is a healthy environment for investment and development. The commission will play a strong role in that effort. We are approaching our challenges in a strategic and coordinated way to ensure that we achieve the high standards and goals we’ve set.”

John Harral, a city leader and attorney with the Butler Snow law firm, has long supported the city having someone who thinks about nothing but economic development.

“I was very pleased when Gulfport not only hired a director solely for that purpose, but selected a professional with Sue’s extensive experience,” he said. “She holds the position at a particularly challenging time, but I am impressed with the commitment she has brought to the job and there is no question her efforts are making an impact. As the economy strengthens we will see even greater success for the city as a result of her skill and efforts.”

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

About Lynn Lofton

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