Promised new Coast jobs cost taxpayers millions. The port’s workforce still shrunk.

The port spent $10 million each on rail-mounted gantry cranes delivered from China, part of a $570 million restoration and expansion project designed to create jobs.
The port spent $10 million each on rail-mounted gantry cranes delivered from China, part of a $570 million restoration and expansion project designed to create jobs.

Gov. Phil Bryant is declaring the $570 million Mississippi port restoration and expansion project an economic success, even though the port has fewer maritime jobs today than it did before spending the money and most are low-paying jobs at a casino hotel.

The Mississippi Development Authority, which heads the project, pledged to create 1,300 full-time maritime jobs at the port in exchange for federal grant money the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided for economic development after Hurricane Katrina.

HUD long questioned whether the port was meeting job goals and cited MDA for failing to properly document the jobs created. But HUD says in a June 25 letter to MDA Executive Director Glenn McCullough that those objections have been satisfied.

“I am very pleased that HUD has reached this conclusion after a thorough compliance review,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a news release Friday. “I appreciate the hard work and diligence by Secretary Ben Carson and his team. This is an important milestone that shows the economic strength of the Port of Gulfport restoration project.”

A HUD report attached to the letter shows how the port satisfied HUD’s critical finding on jobs, issued in 2013.

First, HUD allowed the port to begin counting jobs Island View Casino Resort added with its own investment in a new hotel tower on port property south of U.S. 90.

When the hotel jobs turned out to be too few, HUD showed the state how to recalculate the numbers so that part-time hotel jobs could be converted to full-time positions based on hours worked.

The state has been able to count a total of 1,167 jobs at the casino hotel, bringing the total number of jobs created to almost 1,500.

HUD estimates 94-96% of the hotel jobs pay low to moderate wages

The number of higher-paying maritime jobs the port created totals only 262, which adds up to a project cost of almost $2.2 million per job.

When adding to the mix jobs that existed before the construction project started in 2008, the port actually has a net loss of maritime jobs, reporting at the end of March that it had retained only 814 of the 1,286 maritime jobs counted in 2007.

Howard Page, a board member with the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, has been part of a grassroots effort to hold the port accountable for the funds it has spent since the 10-year project’s inception.

“We were promised full-time, high-paying, good benefit jobs,” Page said Friday. “That’s the maritime jobs. The only way they were able to satisfy HUD — and I’m stunned that they satisfied HUD — was to count these low-paying, part-time, non-maritime jobs.”

“It was a bait and switch.”

HUD also considered an economic impact study on the port published in June by the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. The report values the annual economic output of maritime activities at the port at $425 million.

Port director Jonathan Daniels credited the MDA and HUD’s technical assistance with helping the project succeed. He was quoted in the governor’s news release as saying, “The diversity in our tenant mix and the investments made in port infrastructure have positioned the Port of Gulfport for decades of economic growth for the region.”

The Stennis report also notes setbacks that explain decreased maritime employment, HUD says, including the 2010 BP oil catastrophe, economic recession, automation, and changes and consolidations in both the industry and supply chain.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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