Port of Gulfport building toward future - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Port of Gulfport building toward future

Some call port plans ambitious, while others wonder if promises of jobs will be fufilled. (Photo source: WLOX News) Some call port plans ambitious, while others wonder if promises of jobs will be fufilled. (Photo source: WLOX News)
Leaders say years of planning are showing viable progress. (Photo source: WLOX News) Leaders say years of planning are showing viable progress. (Photo source: WLOX News)

Plans to restore and expand the Port of Gulfport have changed dramatically over the years.

Port leaders are spending more than a half-billion dollars in federal Katrina money to restore and expand the facility.

Some call port plans an ambitious project to create the state's largest economic development engine. Others wonder where the jobs are that were promised with the $570 million investment.

Port of Gulfport Executive Director Jonathan Daniels likes what he sees from his 14th floor office window — years of planning beginning to give way to visible progress.

“Now you can actually get down on site, you can begin to see things taking shape. You can begin to see the actual outline of a container terminal. You can begin to see the steel going up on the warehouse and what's going to be in those areas,” said Daniels, “You also see, of course, the most prominent feature and that's the silos that are now in place. So all those individual projects are now beginning to come together as a port.”

That progress is beginning to be noticed by the industry. When Daniels first accepted the job, the perception of the port was limited.

“The thing that I have seen as I've been traveling, really throughout the world, is the fact that Gulfport, in many respects, was not very well known. We were that little banana port on the coast of Mississippi. We were known for Chiquita. We were known for Dole. Now we're known for being right at the forefront in the oil and gas industry, oil and gas services, production capabilities. So, our reputation is changing a little bit. I think we're seeing a significant amount of respect in the industry,” said Daniels, who took the Gulfport job two years ago.

The recruitment and subsequent arrival of McDermott has given the Port of Gulfport an initial foothold in the oil and gas industry. Daniels says that company is part of the diversification strategy.

“To have an announcement that McDermott was coming in was one thing. To actually be able to look down and see the pipe racks going in place, hearing the construction noise, knowing very well they're now tacking down and riveting down their welding equipment. They're getting ready to be able to spin pipe off by the end of the year or in early 2016,” he explained.

To help spread the word about port progress and boost its "public" relations, the port offers free tours of its facility several times a year.

“We're going to talk about what we do day in, day out operationally. And we're going to talk about the diversification strategy that we're currently going though,” said the port director.

Visitors learn that Gulfport is the third busiest container port on the Gulf of Mexico.  Clothing is among the imports, including lots of underwear.

“We handle Fruit of the Loom, we handle Hanes. We handle a lot of under garments, as you can see. It just happens, it's cargo. We are also one of the top, if not the top facility for the import of Victoria's Secret underwear,” Daniels told a tour group.

Though increasing cargo capacity is among the goals of port expansion, the more significant priority is creating new jobs; 1,300 to be exact. That number is the mandate from HUD for spending the $570 million in CDBG money on port improvements.

“Jobs is absolutely the bottom line issue. It always has been,” said Howard Page.

Page tracks that issue for the STEPS Coalition, serving as a watchdog over port progress and job creation.

“We keep having promises and we look forward to seeing that some jobs will be created, and we hope that those jobs will go to local people because that was the purpose of this project. So, concerns remain and the performance has still not been seen. But we're still optimistic and we definitely will still be looking at this project to make sure the money is wisely spent,” said Page.

The 1,300 new jobs requirement won't be measured until 2020, three years after the port project is finished. However, at October's port authority meeting, Daniels noted that the promised jobs will be created.

“And I can tell you that the staff around here and many people in the community are beginning to believe, that the direction of the port is such where we're not only going to see the jobs created at 1300, but that will be the lowest benchmark that we have. We're going to certainly be able to succeed that,” said Daniels.

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