Coast Chamber discusses the slowing economy

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The economy takes center stage Monday night when President Obama holds a prime time news conference. The president is expected to say that if an economic stimulus package isn't adopted very soon, the nation will slip into a crisis so deep, we may be unable to reverse it.

That dire prediction had a lot of south Mississippi business owners on edge.

The seafood sold at Quality Poultry and Seafood is the freshest you'll find. But these days, the market for people like Todd Rosetti to sell fresh merchandise is rather sour.

"I mean the local economy is hurting," said Rosetti.

Consequently, deliveries from his warehouse are down nearly 30 percent compared to a year ago.

"The people don't go out to eat," Rosetti said. "So we don't sell as much product to the hotels and the local restaurants."

Rosetti's company belongs to the Coast Chamber. And Monday, the chamber held its annual luncheon. A year ago, the economy was okay. However, 365 days later, the stock market is way off. And a second stimulus package to save the economy is being debated by Congress. Suddenly, many of these south Mississippi business owners -- people who survived Katrina -- are struggling to protect jobs and protect their bottom lines.

Jamie Sablich owns a couple of restaurants across the coast.

"Oh I tell you, in our restaurants we've really had to watch everything we do, watch our pennies," he said. "We've had to cut staff. Actually, we've cuts some hours just to try and cut back on utilities."

Robin Killeen is acutely aware of the difficulty people are having right now. She runs an agency in Gulfport that finds temporary work for people in need.

"What I am seeing is a lot of high quality people walking in our doors looking for employment," she said, noting that upper echelon jobs are not available. That gives the appearance that doors may be closing on the community and its businesses.

Yet, store managers remain optimistic that despite gloomy economic forecasts, nothing will dash their financial hopes for the future.

That's the attitude the Coast Chamber is endorsing. Its incoming chairman is John McFarland.

"We're trying to provide small businesses with the resources they need right now to survive, to get through this. And then to be able to grow," said McFarland. "It is tough times. But the opportunities are out there for people that are looking for help. The help is there. And we're one of the providers."

Duncan McKenzie understands this economic struggle better than most. As president of Hard Rock Biloxi, he's had to let go of dozens of employees to cut costs and survive in these tight economic times. McKenzie is also a past Coast Chamber chairman. He was in charge when Hurricane Katrina seemed to dash the hopes of so many business owners.

Because of his unwavering leadership after the storm, McKenzie received the 2009 Pat Santucci Spirit of the Coast award. As he accepted the award, he said the economic struggles of today are very similar to the storm struggles of 2005.

"This hurricane put us all in a special place," said McKenzie. And then, stealing a line from his friend Dave Dennis, he said, "It created a tragic opportunity for us. And you know, it was time to step up and work with the community to make things better."

McKenzie says it's time to step up again to ride out this economic storm with the same resolve south Mississippi showed after Hurricane Katrina.

The Coast Chamber says statistics indicate that's the approach business owners seem to be taking.  Despite the slowing economy, the chamber gained an additional 161 new members last year.