Review of Port of Gulfport plans points up to more problems

published in the Sun Herald

Anita Lee

GULFPORT — The state port is spending more than $560 million to expand its West Pier, where four current tenants will operate, but has not secured long-term leases with those tenants, according to a review ordered by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Also, the port has no public-private partnership in place with tenant DuPont, although the review says a “considerable investment” will be needed to serve the company on the expanded West Pier.

The review, by consulting firm R.K. Johns & Associates, points out other problems with the port’s expansion plan, including no economic-development return from a $100 million-plus investment in elevation, shutdown of rails for 18 months to DuPont while work is done and the inability of one new tenant space to help the port meet its requirement to create 1,200 direct jobs.

Gov. Phil Bryant inherited the port expansion from his predecessor, Haley Barbour. Barbour hailed long-term port expansion as the biggest economic-development project in Mississippi history after his administration shifted $560 million designated for housing recovery to the port.

The money is administered by the Mississippi Development Authority, which has oversight of the port project and is the state’s economic-development agency. However, when asked Friday who at MDA was responsible for working on port leases, public-private partnerships to fund improvements and bringing in new tenants, Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock responded, in writing:

“The Port Commission is responsible for negotiating leases and entering into legal agreements. By law, MDA must review and approve those legal documents prior to final execution by the Commission.”

‘Those people should go’

Reilly Morse, Mississippi Center for Justice attorney representing the Steps Coalition, believes MDA does bear some responsibility for failure to deliver on economic-development promises at the port. The nonprofit Steps Coalition is pushing for jobs that would offset the drawbacks of major port expansion, including pollution, traffic congestion and a major new trucking road — which might be overkill considering recent questions about the plan.

“The Mississippi Development Authority in Jackson owns some of the problem here, and frankly, I think the governor’s office does, too,” said Morse, who credited Bryant with recognizing problems with the port expansion and ordering extensive review of the plans.

“There were people in Jackson overseeing this every step of the way and championing it, mistakenly, we now know. Those people should go. I don’t know who they are. Gov. Bryant knows. They report to him.”

Can’t justify 45-foot channel

Steps recently got port officials to publicly concede for the first time the port has suspended a request to deepen Gulfport’s ship channel to 45 feet. Actually, the port never applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for channel deepening, a process that takes a decade or more to evaluate.

Privately, officials concede the port does not currently have the business to justify a 45-foot channel. Publicly, they say they will continue to pursue a deeper channel as a long-term goal.

The review Bryant ordered suggests the port work with its current tenants on long-term leases, secure the public-private partnership with DuPont for its improvements, revisit elevation to 25 feet and instead evacuate for hurricanes, and develop plans for non-maritime use of the north shore, among other measures.

A maritime expert, Hofstra University professor Jean-Paul Rodrigue, looked over the R.K. Johns review at the Sun Herald’s request.

“The goal of the expansion project seems to be satisfying and improving the business of the existing tenants,” said Rodrigue, who has a doctorate in transportation geography and specializes in maritime shipping and trade distribution. “If they can get somebody else to come, that would be great. There’s not going to be a rush to come there.