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State Port’s goal? International shipping leader, supporters say

The Mississippi State Port at Gulfport is looking forward and backward. The facility continues to rebuild from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina but is also looking far into the future with a plan for growth. Considered a driving economic force for the state, there was no question the port would be rebuilt. In the three years since the storm, however, factors have converged to point the way to a bigger role in shipping.

International shipping is shifting closer to Gulf of Mexico states at the same time the Panama Canal is being widened and other ports in the area are reaching peak capacities. Prior to the hurricane, the state port was the third-busiest container port situated on the Gulf. Don Allee, the port’s director, says capacity has greatly increased at other ports on the Gulf, making Gulfport ideally situated to prepare for additional business.

In addition to plans to restore the port, an ambitious plan for growth has been developed by international engineering firm CH2M HILL. Public input was gathered under the leadership of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and the plan is ready for action by the port commission.

Allee is focused on the mission of the port as a vibrant economic engine for the state while reminding other leaders that the port can lose its competitive position in the Gulf while in repair and recovery mode.

“The competition doesn’t wait; that’s a fact of business. The Mississippi State Port is critical to the economic well being and diversity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well as the entire state,” he said. “Now we have opportunities to be considered in updating the revitalization plan. With a strategic restoration, we have the opportunity to become the nation’s port of the future.”

Lee Youngblood is leading the charge for MDA, the agency handling and administering all federal recovery funds. “We’re looking at restoration and storm mitigation,” he said. “The plan is to raise the port above the 25 foot storm surge level,” he said. “We started a listening campaign last summer, asking the community what elements it would like to see. The plan to a large degree was provided by people in the community.”

He points out that CH2M HILL is world renowned and is also working on the project to widen the Panama Canal and the site for the Olympics in London.

“We want to put the port in a position that it can compete and grow; to be the leader,” he said. “The work will be done in phases. MDA’s first priority is getting the port back to where it was, business and capacity wise, with an over-running guide to protect the community.”

During the 2005 storm, huge containers from the port smashed into West Gulfport neighborhoods and along U.S. 90 causing major damage. Youngblood says mitigation plans for future storms call for freight containers to be raised above the surge level and strapped down

Plans for the future take into consideration growth over the next 20 to 50 years. “Remember, it’s a vision,” he said. “It’s very ambitious and a great start.”

He also points out the port’s value to the whole state. “There are thousands of direct jobs and more ancillary jobs that go on up the state as the port becomes the load center and an international port,” he said. “Those reverberations go all the way up the state with opportunities for warehousing and other businesses.”

Once the plan has been adopted, Youngblood says MDA will undertake a full education program to inform the state about opportunities resulting from growth at the state port.

Anthony Topazi, CEO of Mississippi Power and president of the Mississippi Economic Council, is endorsing the port’s plan. He feels it is the kind of plan necessary to further diversify the economy and mitigate the risk of economic disruption from future hurricanes.

“The proposed plan for redevelopment of the port is excellent,” he said. “It is visionary and opportunistic in positioning our state to take advantage of growth in cargo shipments in the U.S.”

Gov. Haley Barbour has been a key player in securing federal funds for the port and promoting its renewal. Federal Community Development Block Grant funds totaling $570 million will be used to begin work at the port.

“This is one of the crucial infrastructures that needs to be replaced,” he said. “We’re charged with bringing this port back with strategic growth to remain competitive with Houston, New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa in this world of an expanded Panama Canal and international trade.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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