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Port study to use market projections to gauge jobs

Before Hurricane Katrina, the estimated number of direct jobs the Mississippi State Port at Gulfport created was 2,500.

That number was based on an economic impact study done in 2004, the last time the Mississippi Development Authority evaluated the job-creation figures related to the Port.

In the next 60 days, the MDA and the Mississippi State Port Authority plan on releasing updated figures, it was revealed last Tuesday during a media tour of the Port’s expansion. The $570-million project would take the Port’s acreage from 204 to nearly 290, and, officials hope, increase its container capacity to the point that it could move 1 million containers annually, more than double its current capacity. The project started in summer 2009. It was funded by a portion of the $5.4 billion Congress allocated for the recovery from Katrina.

While those numbers are firm, what is less certain, and what officials hope the economic impact study will clarify, is the number of direct jobs the Port is responsible for now.

“I have to have something to point to,” said Port Authority executive director Don Allee. “Everybody wants to know a number. And if I throw a number out there, it becomes Gospel. And I like being able to document things like that to business groups. That’s the way we did it prior to Katrina, so I have no reason to think that’s not still the best way to measure job implications.”

The MDA has allocated “between $80,000 and $100,000” for the economic impact study and an environmental impact statement, said Deron Wilson, director of the MDA’s Disaster Recovery Division. The economic impact study, he said, has been going on for some time, and has encountered several moving targets.

“The first study was initiated when we started the (expansion) project,” Wilson said. “We’ve had to go back and revise because the economy went in the opposite direction. It’s really kind of an ongoing process, and it will continue to get re-evaluated as the economy changes and we have a better understanding of things. Every year we’ll re-evaluate to make sure that we’re building to the latest figures. We’re currently looking at it to make sure that we agree with the assumptions because a lot of this is based on assumptions of the marketplace. We have to make sure that we’re comfortable with that.

“We’re always looking at the marketplace and trying to determine what your market is and making traffic projections based on that,” Wilson continued. “The economic impact boils down to correlating the number of jobs based on the amount of volume. We’ll take three or four scenarios of volume and we’ll project the jobs based on those. You also have to factor in how that volume moves because there’s a big difference between a wheeled operation (the cargo-loading method used at the Port now) and an operation that moves via rail (which will be integrated with the Port’s expansion). There are more or less jobs attached to the way you handle the cargo.”

One of those market factors the MDA will have to monitor at the Port is the influx of new shipping customers, something Allee and other Port Authority officials hope is driven by the expansion. The direct-jobs figure could rise or fall depending on how many, and what type, of customer comes on board. Calculating the job-creation number based on a shipping operation uses a formula that connects 4.1 jobs per 1,000 20-foot cargo equivalent units, or TEUs.

“We refer to them all as direct-impact jobs,” Allee said. “They’re not just members of the (International Longshoreman’s Association), they’re not just loading and unloading ships. They’re truckers who are hauling the containers in and out of the Port. We’re going to grow our rail business in the future. It’s transportation-related. It doesn’t always mean somebody standing next to a ship. For example, a lot of these refrigerated containers require people with special training and skill sets to maintain. The service side is part of that direct-job category.

“Whoever our next client is will have a lot to do with the post-expansion job count,” Allee continued. “If they come in running a stack operation, well, everything we have right now is on wheels. A stack operation is far more volume per acre, so it produces more containers and requires more jobs. A lot of the ports we compete with are stack operations where their per-acre utilization is higher. We’re a time-sensitive wheel operation with high-value commodities. We like that business. We’ve been very fortunate with it for the last four decades. But we want to be able to cater to and attract those higher-density carriers, those next tier carriers, and we’re having conversations with those types of steamship lines right now.”

Said Wilson: “We want to make sure that when we model this that we have a good understanding of what our future volume looks like, and that’s split between road and rail.”

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