Oil spill grant may lead to Coast tourism consolidation

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — A new regional tourism partnership created to help administer a $16-million grant from BP may soon replace individual tourism bureaus all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Coast Regional Partnership was created earlier this year after the state and BP agreed to award Mississippi $16 million for tourism.

The partnership is made up of two representatives from Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties respectively, and seven appointments from the Gulf Coast Business Council.

The partnership is a nonprofit corporation, and will operate separately from the current tourism bureaus in the three coastal counties.

Earlier, this year, the Hancock County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support the creation of the partnership.

State lawmakers then passed legislation that allowed Hancock County and other counties to contract with nonprofit groups such as the partnership.

Partnership chairman John McFarland said, “This all goes back to just after (Hurricane) Katrina, when the governor wanted to bring the business community into tourism. We have talked to dozens of other markets who have gone from governmental entities to no nonprofits.”

The group’s nonprofit status will allow it to solicit funds from private sources, as well as governmental entities, officials said.

Hancock County Board of Supervisors president Rocky Pullman said getting involved in a regional plan may be the best thing.

“At the end of the day, we feel like it will make it better for Hancock County,” Pullman said. “If we get on the backs of Harrison and Jackson counties, there is going to be a lot of spill over, and a lot more opportunities.”

Local tourism officials, however, say they are not sold on the regional approach.

Beth Carriere of the Hancock County Tourism Bureau said creation of the partnership means the end of the local bureaus.

“Everything we do will disappear,” she said. “We do a lot of things specific to Hancock County such as printing, social media, bus tours and ‘Cruisin’ the Coast.’ They have created a generic cell with the three counties.”

Carriere said the current legislation, which provides funding to the Hancock County Tourism Bureau, is set to expire March 1, 2012.

Without any reprieve, the Hancock County Tourism Bureau will be dissolved, she said.

“We are trying to be gracious and look for new jobs at the same time,” she said.

She said there are some advantages to a Coast-wide approach, but it’s too early to tell if it will work.

“I support a coast-side effort, but my concern is I don’t know how much attention they are going to pay to Hancock County. There is nothing we can do right now. If that’s what the board wants, then that’s fine. Who knows, it might turn out to be fine.”

McFarland said the partnership has representatives from across the coast, who will ensure the right thing is done for each community, as well as the Coast in general.

The partnership has already begun meeting, and in July it will receive the $16 million from BP, he said.

“BP would not give the state the money unless we had this type of partnership to administer it,” he said. “It is our goal to make this a permanent partnership.”

Source: AP

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