Could Project Crawfish reel in promised state port jobs

Sun Herald

GULFPORT — The president and CEO of global maritime company Edison Chouest, Gary Chouest, is expected to join Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday morning at state port offices to sign final agreements for expansion of Topship LLC’s planned operations at the inland port, which the state says will create up to 1,000 jobs in exchange for millions in incentives, a state loan and federal Katrina funds.

State and port officials have referred to the deal as “Project Crawfish” in secret negotiations that have been going on for a year or more.

Topship signed a lease with the port almost a year ago on 116 acres in the industrial park off Seaway Road. The port spent $32 million for the property. Port Director Jonathan Daniels said Topship’s monthly lease payments will cover the property’s costs, with interest.

Officials will say little until Monday about what Topship plans to do on the property. The property includes about 400,000 square feet of covered storage, outdoor storage, rail access, a shallow-draft canal and interstate access.

“The great thing about that facility is that it provides significant latitude for a number of operations, which could include the construction of offshore supply vessels, as well as other private and government contracts.” Daniels said. “It is a very unique facility that cannot be used by a lot of industries, but this is one of the industries that can maximize use not only of the property but of the existing buildings.”

In the time Topship has leased the property, the company has driven pilings and is docking ships there. Topship needed further agreements in place with the state before moving forward, Daniels said.

The Legislature on Thursday approved an $11 million loan for Topship. The state port will put up $25 million of its $580 million in federal Katrina recovery funds for the project. The state loan includes money for job training.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided the Katrina money in exchange for jobs. Most of the money is going to restoration and expansion of the port’s West Pier on the Mississippi Sound, a project that has so far produced few jobs as construction continues.

But Gov. Phil Bryant and port officials believe the Topship project will go a long way toward satisfying federal requirements for 1,300 jobs.

Daniels said Edison Chouest is looking beyond rock-bottom oil prices to a rebound of the industry in 2017 and 2018. Topship is expected to finish construction at the inland port in 2018.

In addition to state and federal funds, Topship will receive a variety of tax incentives and breaks, the Associated Press reports.

“I think everyone hopes this will be a success, but the past busted predictions of job creation at the port have to give cause for concern,” said Reilly Morse, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which has for years served as a port watchdog and community advocate for job creation.