Great expectations are colliding with hard reality at the Port of Gulfport, Miss., where state officials are considering modifications to a $570 million rebuilding and expansion project.
The state-owned port is still recovering from Hurricane
Katrina, which flattened the port with a 24-foot storm surge in August 2005. Left with a blank slate for redevelopment, port officials planned big.
Using federal community block development grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, port officials moved to develop what then-Gov. Haley Barbour said would be “the port of the future.”
Katrina’s storm surge left downtown Gulfport strewn with port debris, including rotting chicken in containers that had been awaiting export. To avoid a repeat of that, officials decided to raise the port by 15 feet, to 25 feet above sea level.
Other plans called for deepening the port’s 36-foot channel to 45 feet, expanding port acreage farther into the Mississippi Sound, improving rail connections, and building a truck route linking the port to Interstate 10.
Controversy erupted immediately. Critics complained the federal community development block grants should have been used to improve housing, not port improvements. HUD allows the money to be used for economic development projects, as long as jobs are created for low- and moderate-income residents.
Local critics have continued to fight the port expansion. Litigation has delayed the I-10 access road. Meanwhile, construction at the port’s west pier was delayed for a year, first by a lawsuit filed by a contractor who lost a construction bid, then by nests of least terns, an endangered species.
In July, port officials drew criticism from a different source: state officials, who were counting on the expansion to bring post-Panamax ships to Gulfport. The officials said they were surprised to learn there was no current application to the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen Gulfport’s channel, and that, for now, the port is trying to win corps approval to clear silt that has reduced the channel draft to 33 feet.
Gov. Phil Bryant asked whether some of the money ticketed for raising the port’s elevation should be used to deepen the channel. He and other state and local officials also expressed concern that the port expansion and elevation won’t produce the 2,586 jobs required by the federal funding.
Bryant asked port officials to provide a report including the port’s marketing strategy and an updated construction schedule. Priorities are to keep existing customers and add jobs, Bryant told the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun
Port officials sought to clarify expectations, and said plans are in place for an expansion that would allow Gulfport to tap some of the larger ships the region’s ports hope to see after new Panama Canal locks open in 2015.
“Our goal is a channel depth of 45 feet, and to get there we’ll need the cooperation and action of Congress, as well as state and federal agencies,” Lenny Sawyer Jr., chairman of the state port authority’s board, said in a statement.
He said there was “public confusion” over the port’s rebuilding efforts, but that the port is moving ahead with plans to increase capacity to handle expected business following the 2015 Panama Canal expansion.
“We’ve not changed our goals or altered those plans,” Port Director Don Allee said.
Although Katrina wiped out Gulfport’s refrigerated export warehouses, banana importers that generate most of the port’s volume returned soon after the storm. Gulfport handled 216,000 20-foot-equivalent container units in 2011, up 3.2 percent from a year earlier.
Gulfport officials say they plan to rebuild the reefer warehouses on the port’s east pier by 2015, when tenants there will be able to relocate to facilities now under construction on the port’s west pier.
“Our goals for a restored port remain the same, to increase our cargo capacity and the number of jobs at the port,” Sawyer said. “There are those who’d like to see this restoration fail because they have their own agendas, but the port is committed to this project, and we’re moving forward.”