Coalition worries Port will lower quality of life

Sun Herald

GULFPORT — The Steps Coalition voiced concerns Monday that poor, mostly minority neighborhoods would unfairly suffer as a result of the Port of Gulfport’s expansion plans.

The group gathered in front of the former 28th Street Elementary School for a news conference Monday where they said areas near downtown and North Gulfport would be subject to air pollution, traffic congestion and the loss of their quality of life as a result of the Port plan. They also worry about whether people would lose their homes to make way for new transportation routes to the Port.

The Rev. Anthony Thompson, Steps Coalition board member and executive director of the Kingdom Community Development Corp., said there were many churches, schools, recreational facilities and homes in the areas that could be affected. He worries about health problems from air pollution that could result from the new truck and rail traffic to the Port.

“We don’t mind progress, but we don’t want our communities to fade in the midst of progress,” Thompson said.

Port officials are restoring Hurricane Katrina damage and raising the elevation to 25 feet in an effort to prevent storm surge damage. Officials expect container capacity to quadruple as a result of the work. The Port has received a total of $570 million in Katrina relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program. Port officials used some of the money to develop a more ambitious long-term expansion plan, which is under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Reilly Morse, a senior attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice and a member of the coalition, said he believes the negative effects of the expansion could be unfairly limited to poor, mostly minority communities along the routes the trucks and trains would take to the expanded port.

“Too much of the burden of this Port expansion plan is being concentrated in a poor community, a non-white community,” Morse said. “That is not an accident and that has not been an accident for a very, very long time in this nation and we know it.”

Port Executive Director Don Allee, who didn’t attend the news conference, said he had no response to Morse’s comment Monday, when it was read back to him.

“It sounds like an observation and I wouldn’t even know where to begin to respond to that,” Allee said.

Those at the meeting said Port officials should sign a “community benefits agreement” that guarantees the project would result in a certain number of jobs for the area, as well as pollution control measures, among other provisions of the binding agreement, which the group proposed last month. Morse and others invited Port officials to meet with the group again.

At the news conference, children in the Steps Coalition’s Artful Activism workshops presented a large paper mache bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that they made. To the beat of drums, they paraded it through the empty schoolyard. They held banners with phrases they said represented their dreams for the community. Free health care, more summer jobs and more opportunities for youths, were among those hopes.

The youth also used Cee Lo Green’s hit song “Forget You” to make their point in a song and dance routine. They changed the lyrics to fit their feelings on the Port project — an opinion the residents of the area were forgotten in the process. They added the refrain “we’re taking our community back.”

Allee said Port officials have met with Steps Coalition and other groups several times in meetings he characterized as “fruitful.” He also urged those with concerns to come to the regular Port Commission meetings.

Allee said public input has shaped Port projects, including the plan in 2008 to expand west, which met heavy opposition from Island View Casino officials, who believed the plan would block their patrons’ view of the Mississippi Sound. Residents who lived along the proposed expansion zone had the same fears about their own vistas. Port officials ultimately decided to expand southward instead.

Allee said work at the Port undergoes extensive reviews from multiple agencies.

“We’re working with a variety of federal and state agencies to make sure we have the least impact on the quality of life here, yet be able to grow the State Port to provide jobs and sustainable wages,” Allee said.