HUD demands port track jobs


GULFPORT — Residents have asked state port officials for more than a year to track the number and kinds of jobs a massive port expansion will create. The federal government is now demanding it.

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.

Even though federal dollars are already being spent, the port has no mechanisms in place to track jobs already provided by current tenants, or jobs the expansion will create, a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development concluded.

PDF: HUD review of Mississippi Development Authority’s port grants

PDF: State response to HUD

HUD, which administers CDBG funds, issued the report after a mid-August visit to review several Katrina disaster recovery programs funded by CDBG.

The 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 notes 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.

“You’ve got to finish the project in order to attract new tenants, which are going to get you the jobs. That’s typical of any economic development project.”

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.

Before Katrina, the port generated more than 2,000 jobs, he said.

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.

He could not say what percentage of jobs would be in transportation once the West Pier expansion is completed because operations will change.

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. 90 will enhance truck travel.

“We will be able to hit a much bigger market than the port does today,” Wilson said.

The new rail line, highway and an inland storage yard for hurricane evacuation are being built in low- to moderate-income communities whose residents hope to at least benefit from job creation. They have long been anxious for solid information on jobs that will be available.

The Steps Coalition of community organizations urged HUD in a March letter to review MDA compliance with job creation and other requirements attached to CDBG funding. Steps representatives, in discussions with the port about the expansion, declined to comment on the HUD review.

However, Gulfport Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines represents the area that will be most affected by transportation and storage upgrades associated with the expansion.

“This is a high-tech world now,” Holmes-Hines said Tuesday. “We have got to start training for it. I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face: ‘If we are going to produce jobs, tell me how many and when the training will begin.’ And how many of our people will have jobs? We don’t need jobs going to Louisiana and Alabama.”

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan in Washington concluded: “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.”

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