Coast moving beyond recovery, making significant progress

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Published: December 24,2007

Two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, and 2007 has shown that while significant challenges remain, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is back open for business, says

Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council.

“Our tourism industry announced unprecedented goals to achieve ‘tier one’ status,” Sanderson said. “More airlines are flying into the Coast than ever before and with more passengers, and world-class projects are being built from one end of the Coast to the other. We’ve seen existing businesses expand and new, international corporations like PSL North America make their home on the Coast.”

Coast leaders are hopeful about the significant reform legislation that was passed in 2007 that is helping the state Wind Pool operate in a more business-like manner and attract more available and affordable insurance. And Coast businesses have also taken the lead in 2007 to meet the need of affordable housing for the workforce.

“Northrop Grumman is piloting the REACH program, which will provide down payment and rental assistance to workers so they may live in quality housing close to where they work,” Sanderson said.

Gaming continues to be the primary engine that is fueling the Coast’s recovery to the tune hundreds of millions being invested in casino resort facilities.

“Casinos continue to rebound strongly as evidenced by the record gaming revenues we are enjoying now,” said Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association and president of the Harrison County Tourism Commission. “Then with the announcement of two major new casino developments coming on board — Margaritaville and Bacaran Bay — it is my opinion that reiterates the strength of the casino industry on the Gulf Coast and in Mississippi.”

Harrison County

The Harrison County Tourism Commission recently completed a visitor profile study, which shows two-thirds of visitors are coming from outside of the immediate area. Martin said that is a direct result of the additional airlines and flights that have been added to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

“We have two new airlines, Skybus and Allegiant Air, and several new flights have been added not only by them, but also American Airlines has added a direct non-stop flight to Chicago just in time for the snowbird season,” Martin said. “We also expect the recent reopening of the Highway 90 bridge will help the casino market in East Biloxi. Based what I’ve seen at the casinos on the east side of Biloxi, the reopening of the bridge has definitely improved their market share.”

Research has shown that while visitors are aware the area was hit by Hurricane Katrina, it is no longer in the front of their minds.

“The hurricane isn’t something we need to focus on anymore,” Martin said. “It is time to move on. Now, if we could get the insurance more available and affordable, and get more of our independent attractions and restaurants to rebuild, that would help build the market again. That seems to be the one holdup is some businesses like waterfront restaurants and amusement parks have not reopened. It is good that the National Park Service is planning to rebuild facilities at Ship Island and the Davis Bayou Headquarters at Ocean Springs. That will have a big impact.”

Hancock County

The largest new industrial project of 2007 on the Coast was landed by Hancock County. Construction has begun on PSL North America’s $100-million pipe plant located at the Port Bienville Industrial Complex. When complete, the plant is expected to employ approximately 300.

“That was a great win for us back in the springtime,” said Jack Zink, executive director, Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.

Zink said there is great demand expected in the state and the region for the type of American Petroleum Institute pipe that will be produced for projects such as natural gas and oil pipelines. Large new pipeline projects are planned in Mississippi, and demand is also expected from Gulf of Mexico operations. The factory will be able to manufacture pipe up to five feet in diameter in lengths as long as 80 feet.

While recovery from the hurricane is proceeding, the biggest issues are lack of affordable housing, high costs for insurance and workforce development.

“There is some progress on affordable housing, but it has been slow in coming,” Zink said. “And with workforce development, we are working to make sure we have the numbers of workers with skill sets needed to meet the demands of the industry we have on the Gulf Coast. “

In Harrison County, some of the industrial announcements of 2006 have made continued progress towards completion of their facilities in 2007, said Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development District.

“Some of them are operating, and we are approaching the opening of the $18-million Suprema plant, which is going to produce roll roofing for commercial application,” Barnett said. “Trinity Yachts has continued to build and expand their facilities. Gulf Ship, which builds hulls for steel ships, has invested a good bit in their infrastructure. U.S. Marine has continued to grow and Seaman Composites is expanding their facility. They are in the process of building a new building. Their business is growing. ANI Pharmaceutical purchased an existing industry in Gulfport, and has expanded this year with plans to continue expanding.”

A new executive director has been hired for the county’s entrepreneurship program. Stephen Whitt runs the Business Technology Center in Biloxi, which provides startup assistance to new businesses.

“I am very excited about having Stephen Whitt helping us move along in our entrepreneurship program as we grow our industry targets,” Barnett said. “As we work on our various industry targets like aerospace, shipbuilding and advanced materials, marine sciences and geospatial, our entrepreneurship program has a part to play for folks who have ideas for starting businesses in those sectors. I see the entrepreneurship piece as being a vital part of our future.”

Barnett said tourism development is also a critical component of economic development efforts in the county. The development commission has gotten involved in promoting the hotels, attractions and golf courses and in advocating improvements at the convention center.

Jackson County

In Jackson County, labor availability especially for welders at shipyards continues to be an issue. A shortage of welders is seen across the country, and in Jackson County and neighboring counties the dearth of affordable housing since Hurricane Katrina exacerbates the problem. Northrop Grumman is working to address the problem with the REACH program to help provide assistance including down payments assistance to workers in procuring affordable housing.

Other major news for Jackson County in the past year includes voters turning down a non-binding referendum on a proposed Choctaw casino resort in Ocean Springs located next to Interstate 10. However, the new chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has said the vote doesn’t necessarily spell an end to the tribe’s consideration of a casino on land it owns at the intersection of Mississippi 57 and Interstate 10.

While some local elected officials have expressed support for the proposed $375-million casino resort, Gov. Haley Barbour has said he will not approve a pact with the tribe to open a casino in Jackson County. Approval is needed from the governor and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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