Federal agency wants record of benefit from federal grants at Port of Gulfport

GULFPORT, Miss. — The federal government is now demanding that Gulfport state port officials start to track the number and type of jobs a $621 million port expansion will create.

The port is expected to receive a total of $621 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for an 84-acre restoration and elevation of the West Pier that will more than quadruple container capacity by 2017.

The port secured the money with the promise that 51 percent of jobs created by the project would be offered to low and moderate-income residents.

The Sun Herald reports (http://bit.ly/ryr3XZ ) that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants a tracking system in place to track jobs already provided by current tenants, or jobs the expansion will create.

HUD administers CDBG funds. A new HUD report notes the state had spent $43 million in CDBG funds on the expansion by mid-August.

“The benefit of tracking the jobs from the time CDBG dollars are first expended is to ensure that the state is building an ongoing record of job creation and retention as it occurs. It is incumbent upon the state to adequately document all of the benefit created in regard to the low- and moderate-income jobs,” the report said.

The Mississippi Development Authority, which oversees the port and CDBG funds, had promised in 2007 to sign agreements with four current tenants that would track job retention and creation.

Daron Wilson, who heads disaster recovery at MDA, said Tuesday the tenant agreements to track jobs will be in place by year’s end.

He said the port also by the end of December will finish a survey of trucking companies that will report transportation jobs the port generates.

The port will use computer software to continue tracking those transportation jobs once the initial survey is completed.

MDA has shared its plans with HUD in a written response to the federal review.

“The reality is that this is a long-term construction project,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, the majority of the job creation is going to happen when the port is complete. And that’s five or six years down the road.

“The port really is not going to see any jobs created until the port’s completed. I think everybody is understanding of that point. We’ve certainly made that known in all of the community meetings that we’ve had,” he said.

Wilson said MDA anticipates the port expansion will create 1,300 new jobs. He said the port also must retain the 1,286 jobs it had in 2007, the most recent number he could provide.

Those include jobs on port property and others involved with transporting goods to and from the port. In fact, he said, the majority of port jobs are in transportation.

The expanded port will allow a new tenant to stack cargo with cranes while current operations involve wheeled cargo. Also, goods can be shipped further and faster on an upgraded rail line and a new highway from the beach to U.S. Highway 90 will enhance truck travel.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan in Washington said: “It’s not enough to say there’s going to be a low- to moderate-income benefit to residents. You’ve got to be able to prove it. Now, they’ve got to put the mechanism in place midstream. If they put it in place and it satisfies our finding, then we’ll withdraw our finding.”


Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com