GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The Port of Gulfport's west pier was the site for the kickoff of a $1.6 billion expansion project. Leaders with the Mississippi State Port Authority say the expansion is poised to make Gulfport the premier port of the Gulf Coast.
"Get ready, cause it's going to be a great ride," Governor Barbour said.
Gov. Barbour hopped inside a bulldozer and dropped the ceremonial dirt for the "ground-making" ceremony. It was called such because the first step of the project involves filling in about 84 acres around the port.
"This is a dynamic leap forward today," said Don Allee, Executive Director of Mississippi State Port Authority.
Port leaders say the expansion will be critical with the re-opening of the Panama Canal in about seven years. Governor Barbour said freight traffic from the west and trade with countries in the Pacific is steadily increasing.
"It is an economic gold mine, not just for Gulfport or Harrison County or the Coast. It's a gold mine of all of South Mississippi and a lot further north than what we think," Barbour said.
Nearly 17,000 jobs could be created, directly or indirectly, according to port leaders. Port designers say the state could see a billion dollars a year after the first ten years of the expansion.
"What we're doing here represents a project that will not only take us through this next decade, but we're looking out 20, 30, 40, 50 years," Allee said.
Though the project is underway, environmental permits are still needed to widen and deepen the channel. FEMA, however, has issued a letter allowing the elevation of the port to 25 feet in hopes of avoiding the container spills left behind after Hurricane Katrina.
"We've worked real hard to make sure the plan is real and has potential to be completed," said John Rester, President of the Board of Commissioners for the Mississippi State Port Authority.
The port, however, has come under fire. Community activists and two congressional officials say the $570 million in Community Development Block Grant money earmarked for the port should be put back for affordable housing. They say that's where the money was intended to go in the first place.
Some North Gulfport residents are also concerned about the impact filling in wetlands could have on their communities.
The first phase of the project could take anywhere from five to seven years.