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Port of Gulfport and MDA eye hotel positions to meet maritime jobs goal

By JACK WEATHERLY 

“Maritime” jobs mean one thing to the world, but at the Port of Gulfport that may include hotel workers.

That is a possibility as the port and the Mississippi Development Authority seek to create 1,300 jobs at the port in exchange for $566 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to rebuild and expand the facility, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.

The time frame on the restoration was a local decision. That’s because the congressional authorization allowing the shifting of money initially set aside for low-to-moderate housing did not set one, according to HUD.

The development authority calls for the jobs target to be hit within three years, possibly longer, after the completion of the port work, which is expected in the first half of 2017.

To meet that target, the port is eyeing the 18-story, 407-room $58 million Island View Casino Hotel, which is located on port property, and had been damaged by the hurricane and left vacant for more than a decade.

The hotel opened April 29 and expects to hire 300.

Jonathan Daniels,  executive director of the port, said in an interview that would be up to MDA to present that proposal to HUD for final approval.

While the MDA “action plan” stipulates that the positions should be “maritime,” there is no definition of the word in the plan, said Daron Wilson, chief operating officer for the MDA disaster recovery division.

“At some point in time, we’re going to have to have a conversation with HUD to see if they truly can be counted toward that,” Wilson said.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD’s Office of Block Grant Assistance, said, “We have not received any such request.”

Wilson said: “Quite frankly, I don’t think we’re going to need those jobs to fulfill the requirement.”

HUD has told MDA that if it does not meet that requirement, it stands to be sanctioned.

HUD has already cited shortcomings in documentation of jobs created in the program.

HUD reiterated in a letter to MDA dated May 29 an earlier finding – that the state agency “has not maintained  adequate records to assist in demonstrating ultimate compliance with the CDBG’s low- and moderate income national objective” for the restoration project.

In shifting money from housing to port restoration, the federal agency requires that at least 51 percent of the created jobs must be in the low-to-moderate income bracket.

The shifting of the $566 million to restoration and expansion of the port with HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program prompted a lawsuit by the Mississippi Conference of the NAACP and others. The issue was resolved in November 2010 when HUD and then-Gov. Haley Barbour reached an agreement to use $132 million in federal money for housing for Mississippians with low and moderate income.

Wilson said that at the time of the HUD finding in August 2013 “we simply did not have a process in place, but we do now.”

Ninety-nine jobs have been created at the port since the agreement was reached with HUD, with 57 percent of them in the low-to-moderate range, which, Daniels says, puts the effort ahead of schedule, given that there are four or five years to fulfill the requirement.

“People talk to us about the fact that we’re slow in job creation. We don’t even have a new facility yet,” Daniels said.

As of March 31, the port had spent about $180 million toward rebuilding and expanding the port, with expected completion in the first half of 2017.

“We’re not going to get to 1,300 and just quit,” Daniels said.

If the hotel jobs are not allowed, “we’ll move forward.”

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