By Lisa Monti
The Hancock County Board of Supervisors still has to vote to finalize the hiring of Ashley Edwards as director of the Port and Harbor Commission but Edwards already has a list of things he wants to accomplish.
One of his first goals will be to create a certified-development ready site list and begin marketing it on the commission’s website. “Things like that don’t take months to put into place,” Edwards said. “I want to dig in and start working on those kinds of issues right away.”
The Port and Harbor Commission selected Edwards, a staffer for Governors Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant, from 50 applicants after a 16-week search process.
Robert Kane, president of the Port and Harbor Commission, said Edwards’ political connections didn’t come to play in his selection. “There were no politics involved at all,” Kane said. “The search was an unbiased, intensive, exhaustive process.”
He cited Edwards’ accomplishments working with the state “handling hundreds of millions of dollars” and his interviews. “He’s a very bright guy and a very quick study. He’ll have this thing going in no time.”
The supervisors’ vote on Edwards’ hiring is expected in early October.
Edwards said through his work with the governor’s office he was involved in “almost every project that occurred in Hancock County since Katrina” and that he’s familiar with the national companies at Stennis Space Center and in the county. That will make for a seamless transition to his new job, he said.
Edwards said Hancock County’s inventory of assets for development influenced his decision to apply for the job.
“There are very few counties where you can find a port, an industrial park with shallow water access, an international airport that can essentially land every plane that flies, a NASA federal installation with tremendous opportunity in aerospace/defense sector growth all wrapped up in a county that has a very high quality of life standard,” he said.
The space center is key to the county’s industrial recruitment and retention, Edwards said. “There are a lot firms out there that are very interested in Hancock County, especially aerospace and defense-based industries, firms that would have associations with the operations out at Stennis,”
He said he will work with the Mississippi Development Authority, utility companies and business leaders in industry recruitment and retention. “There are going to be tremendous opportunities, especially given the availability of state incentives and resources to try to leverage development,” he said.
When it comes to community assets, Edwards said he recalls former MDA head Leland Speed often saying that to be successful in economic development, first make sure you have a place that people want to live.
“At the end of the day, companies looking to relocate are not just looking at site availability, they’re looking at schools, community assets and amenities to make sure they’re locating to a place their folks will really want to live,” said Edwards.
He said a priority along with recruiting industries is to get more people who work in Hancock County to live there.
“With folks who live elsewhere, dollars are not being spent in our grocery stores and our restaurants,” he said. “If you focus on just the industrial recruitment side of it you ‘re missing a big piece of ultimately what makes development successful.”
Edwards said he’ll promote Hancock County’s success in improving its schools, starting with East Hancock Elementary recently earning status as a Blue Ribbon School.
“As I have met with potential corporate tenants over the past eight years there never has been a time that someone didn’t ask about the quality of schools,” he said. “A lot times people don’t immediately associate schools with economic development and it’s extremely important.”
Edwards said he comes to the job with some concerns, including the potential negative impact of Louisiana’s flood control plans on the county’s assets. “Flood control is a huge issue,” he said.
Another is insurance rates. “Flood insurance has now become a chief concern of leadership along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and really in coastal America,” he said. “We have to look at things the potential developer would look at, whether it’s a regulatory issue or a wetlands issue. We have to think in terms of removing those barriers to the extent that we can.”
Edwards said he’s seen the move toward regionalism along the Mississippi Coast in tourism and economic development and plans to meet with his counterparts in Harrison and Jackson counties soon after he gets to work. “I want to make sure everyone in this agency understands the value of regional synergy and ultimately the competitive advantages that would give us as a region.”