Some of the smartest investments happen along coastlines — and what better coast to invest in than the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Our Coast has seen its share of natural and man-made disasters, and has used resiliency and determination to come back, stronger than ever.
Mississippi’s maritime economy — the “Blue Economy” — is already large, perhaps larger than many here in the state and surrounding region appreciate because the economic data is not complete. Best estimates put the overall economic impact of the Coast somewhere between one-third and one-half of the state’s gross domestic product. That means that any investment into Mississippi’s Blue Economy will ripple throughout the state.
There is an opportunity at hand: The world is advancing autonomous technologies on land, in the air, in space and at sea. We recognize that these various technologies will need to coordinate and communicate seamlessly from under the ocean surface, to the air, and to outer space. This is important not only for defense of our soldiers, sailors and homeland, but also for commerce across oceans, recovery from natural and man-made disasters including hurricanes and oil spills, fishing and aquaculture, communications, energy development and environmental monitoring.
Last summer, Gov. Phil Bryant challenged his Governor’s Ocean Task Force to create a roadmap for the Blue Economy based on high-paying jobs and a highly trained workforce. Seeing the opportunities, the task force recommended a master plan that outlined this roadmap, while also recognizing specific challenges such as the need for more investments in workforce development and education focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math
The GOTF Master Plan focused on key areas to leverage: engineering capacity, advanced development, applications, workforce and education, economic development, and policy and ethics. The plan recommended to Gov. Bryant that he work with state and federal agencies to use public-private partnerships to create a unique maritime technology environment for research, development, evaluation and testing.
The list is long and the need is great, but there are precious few places in the United States where such technologies can move from concept in the laboratory to large-scale evaluation in the ocean. Fortunately for us, Mississippi is one of those places. We have major research universities already excelling in research and development of autonomous vehicles in the sea (The University of Southern Mississippi) and in the air (Mississippi State University). We have major companies already invested in unmanned maritime systems, such as Leidos in Long Beach, which will build the 135-foot Sea Hunter II with United States Marine Inc. in Gulfport.
We have interested and highly invested federal partners, including the Naval Oceanographic Office under the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. We also have NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center (the marine environment data collectors for the nation’s coasts and offshore waters) at Stennis and National Marine Fisheries Service in Pascagoula.
The Governor’s Ocean Task Force Master Plan creates a roadmap whereby these existing strengths are leveraged with our unique coastline in a way that builds new engineering and entrepreneurship capacity. It focuses on partnerships between the educational pathway from high schools to community colleges and research universities. It links industry and manufacturing to research and development. And, it leverages the ability of Mississippi’s strong leadership from our local, state and federal representatives to build longstanding, sustainable programs.
Our vision is called Ocean Enterprise. The centerpiece is a large research and development center in downtown Gulfport. There is further capacity for advanced development, testing and evaluation in both Hancock and Jackson counties.
Ocean Enterprise is more than bricks and mortar. It is a partnership program that allows for private and public investments to be made on critical projects in a way that can supply new technologies to market in months — rather than years — under the current acquisitions process. Ocean Enterprise will also link to a proposed Business Development Fund that will facilitate start-up investment and draw other capital investments into the area.
In short, Ocean Enterprise will change the game for South Mississippi by shifting economic development toward high-end engineering and advanced technology development. Rather than having our best and brightest high school graduates leave the state for other opportunities, we can give them a reason to stay.
Places like Huntsville, Alabama, and Manhattan, Kansas, have built economies driven by similar goals. We can do the same — right here in South Mississippi.
Dr. William “Monty” Graham serves as chair of Gov. Phil Bryant’s Ocean Task Force. He is director of the USM School of Ocean Science and Technology.