Business

BP money is ‘not the solution’ for Mississippi Coast’s struggling economy, CEO says

He painted a picture of a “decade lost” since Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, with fewer jobs, slow growth in wages and a widening economic gap between South Mississippi and the rest of the state and the country.

Then John Hairston, chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council and CEO of Hancock Holding Co., challenged the nearly 500 people at IP Casino Resort on Tuesday to come up with a plan to restore jobs and prosperity.

Speaking at what Business Council President Ashley Edwards said will become an annual State of the Coast Economy to measure progress, Hairston said South Mississippi has 4,400 fewer jobs since the oil spill in 2010 and 11,265 fewer than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Just as we climb out of Hurricane Katrina we get hit by the oil spill,” he said. “We have not yet recovered from the first one much less the second.”

The Business Council’s focus will be to work with the top talent at the local chambers of commerce from the three counties, he said, and find ways to return the Coast to what was a very prosperous economy before Katrina.

“And don’t stop there,” he said. South Mississippi has the resources, the people, the infrastructure and the climate to be much stronger than it is, he said.

“It may take a generation or two to get there,” he said. “The best things do.”

The numbers

The data presented was assembled by University of South Mississippi’s Trent Lott Center. It showed the perception that South Mississippi’s economy is performing as well as other areas in the state and the region isn’t reflected in the numbers.

Since the second quarter of 2010, when the BP oil spill occurred, the state grew 50,400 jobs while South Mississippi lost 4,400 jobs. Sales tax is up 28 percent on the Coast since 2003 while it is up 43 percent for Mississippi.

The big winner is Coast tourism, he said, which has grown jobs since the oil spill, but those jobs are in one of the lowest-paying sectors, Hairston said.

Jackson and Hancock counties are more industrial and have higher wages than Harrison County. In contrast, “One of the highest cost of living counties is Harrison, with the lowest wages.”

The challenge for Hancock and Jackson counties is the large percentage of people who work there but live in Louisiana and Alabama.

“You have to understand why and those may be uncomfortable answers,” Hairston said

The top priority

One of the first ways to improve South Mississippi’s economy is getting the BP money directed to the Coast, he said.

The $750 million that BP will pay over a decade is the single largest amount Mississippi has ever received with no strings attached, Hairston said. The money is to repair economic damages, and the state Legislature and governor will determine how it is spent.

It is “honorable, fair and just” to expect most of the money should be spent on the Coast, Hairston said. That amount of money also deserves accountability, he said, so that every nickel invested will be expected to give an impressive reward.

Although local delegates haven’t been able to get the state Legislature to agree that the money should be spent on the Coast, Hairston said the majority of the money has so far been used to fund projects in South Mississippi, where about 78 percent of the economic damages occurred.

But what happens to the remaining $690 million is still to be determined.

To help with that, the Business Council will assemble a group of group of people from diverse geographic and economic areas, he said, and before the next Legislative session and put together one plan of how the BP money can best be invested.

“An excellent point. We need to put it together,” said Rhonda Rhodes with Hancock Resource Center, who was listening in the audience. “We need one plan.”

The plan

“BP’s not the solution. BP’s the starting point of a broader solution,” Hairston said.

While the narrow and short-term focus is on the BP funds, the Business Council is going to lead the chambers of commerce to develop a plan forward “with passion, vigor and tenacity,” Hairston said.

“We’re talking about a 20 year plan here,” he said, one to take South Mississippi through the 2020s and 2040s and beyond.

The immediate tasks to improving the Coast economy are to know the facts, debate the ideas, get a plan and get behind the plan, he said.

Most communities the size of South Mississippi don’t have a refinery or NASA or shipbuilding for the U.S. Navy, he said.

That’s our base,” he said. “We got the golden goose. We just got to squeeze her a little bit to get some eggs.”

BP projects funded by Legislature

2016

$8,200,000

USM Main Campus renovation of Greene Hall

$5,000,000

USM Marine Science endowment fund

$5,000,000

Keesler Air Force Base projects

$3,000,000

USM — Gulf Coast Research Lab

$3,000,000

Bicentennial Commission

$3,000,000

Gulf Coast Community College scholarship fund

$2,500,000

MDA economic development/infrastructure fund

$2,000,000

Pearl River Community College scholarship fund

$1,600,000

Bicentennial tourism

$1,500,000

National Diabetes/Obesity Research Center

$1,500,000

Pascagoula Redevelopment Authority

$1,000,000

Pearl River Community College Satellite Campus

$800,000

Infinity rocket project

$300,000

USM — Gulf Park student resource center

$50,000

John Ford home repairs/renovations

$38,450,000

2016 total

2017

$5,000,000

Keesler Air Force Base projects

$1,500,000

National Diabetes/Obesity Research Center

$3,000,000

MS oyster restoration project Phase II

$9,500,000

2017 total

Gulf Coast Business Council

Perception of Coast economy

Audience members at the State of the Coast Economy on Tuesday were asked to use their cellphones and text their opinions. They replied:

▪  84 percent said the Coast economic performance is not meeting expectations

▪  71 percent said the best short term way to improve the economy is for the BP money to be spent on the Coast

▪  67 percent said their perception is the Coast economy is flat

▪  47 percent said it is the responsibility of the business community and Coast chambers for building a plan

▪  38 percent said it is the responsibility of local city and county officials to execute a plan

▪  35 percent said it is the responsibility of the business community to execute the plan

  Comments