By BECKY GILLETTE
GULFPORT — It has been estimated that 35 percent of the Coast’s economy is based on maritime businesses like shipbuilding, transportation, fishing and tourism. And now what has been dubbed the “Blue Economy” will get another boost with the construction of a new $10-million Marine Science Facility that will be built by the Port of Gulfport for the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We are thrilled,” said Mel Arsenault, director of external affairs for the Port of Gulfport.
“This is an exciting partnership with USM. Their Point Sur research vessel has been here at the port for a year, so it really solidifies that partnership. It is the only oceanographic class research vessel in the northern Gulf of Mexico.”
The port plans to break ground on the 3,500-square-foot facility in September with construction expected to take about a year.
The primary function of the new facility that will be built south of Highway 90 near 30th Avenue in Gulfport will be to support the USM research vessels at the port with shops and storage areas. It will have space for two classrooms and two labs that will be used by scientists who are embarking or disembarking on research cruises.
“It will be a unique facility,” said Dr. Monty Graham, director of the USM School of Ocean Science and Technology. “The facility is going to help the school centralize our ability to move people on and off the shore and get their research and education programs out to sea. The biggest element of that is our 135-foot research boat Point Sur, which is homeported in Gulfport. This facility will be an extension of that ship. Scientists and crew can stage and put equipment together, make brackets, and fix electronics inside the facility. It will be our principal marine operations support facility.”
Graham said currently USM is applying to the Institutions of Higher Learning to start offering an ocean engineering program. There are less than ten such programs in the country. Graham said the Marine Science Facility would be ideal to support that program.
“This will tie academics and education together with research vessel support,” Graham said. “All this is taking place at a major ocean port. The significance of that is ports are a central element of the Blue Economy, the economy that is here because of the ocean, in our case the Gulf of Mexico. This is just an incredible opportunity. It extends us beyond purely ocean science to economic development. That’s important for universities. The Blue Economy is recognized by USM as a key area for us to grow to anchor our coastal presence.”
The Blue Economy refers to a wide range of economic activity based on oceans, seas, harbors, ports and coastal zones. A USM student research team has done a report showing that the three coastal counties have a work force of 143,873 and employment impacted by maritime industries is 51,031, or 35 percent of the entire coastal work force.
The facility will be located in what has been called “the front door” of the port.
“It is prime real estate by any measure,” Graham said. “It will be great for the university to be have such a high profile right there at the port. USM has a strong history of working with the community and the state. The university wants the southern tier of Mississippi to take advantage of the one element that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the state – the ocean. We are ripe for developing a very technology-rich environment for supporting this Blue Economy. We have shipbuilding in the east, the Navy at Stennis Space Center in the west, the Port of Gulfport in the middle, and tourism and fishing all along the coast.”
Graham said their marine programs also involve working with the Center for Logistics Trade Transportation housed in the Trent Lott Center in Hattiesburg and on economic development and tourism with USM College of Business.
“USM is working to tie together all our ocean enterprise interests,” he said. “Our concept is a unifying nexus between state, federal, university, and private sector elements. We recently reorganized existing marine research programs within the university. For decades, USM has had a large marine research presence in all three coastal counties. There is the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, the Marine Sciences Department out at Stennis and an undergraduate program at the Long Beach campus. They were loosely affiliated at best. Last year we reorganized to bring them under one large unit, the School of Ocean Science and Technology.”
Dr. Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science at USM, said the new Marine Research Facility will have a long-term effect on job creation.
“USM is hoping to acquire a brand new and much larger research vessel in the next five to ten years,” Asper said. “This facility is necessary in order to qualify for asking to site this vessel here in Mississippi.”
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