Thousands of drivers pass by a sign pointing the way to the North Harrison County Industrial Complex off U.S. 49 just south of Saucier. Few, if any, follow that sign.
There are no big rigs slowing down to turn in either. No freight trains for that matter.
Should they turn down the narrow road leading around the park, they’d find there is not a single tenant.
About a decade ago, officials and the board of the Harrison County Industrial Commission first pitched the idea to the county. The commission was all but out of large tracts of land suitable for industrial land. It had put together such a tract, almost 500 useable acres about 18 miles from the port. Land that was just about a half-mile from a four-lane highway, adjacent to the Kansas City Southern railroad, and less than 20 miles from Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
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“What the commission recommended is we purchase that property up there so in the future we would have land available for industry that would require more than a small acreage,” said District 3 Supervisor Marlin Ladner. He along with District 5 Supervisor Connie Rockco are the only holdovers from the board that OK’d the deal. “In hindsight. We all got 20/20 hindsight. I might question the location and some of that now.”
He said another consideration was federal grants were being used to run water and sewer to the area at no cost to the county, he said.
“Future boards of supervisors, I think, may look back and say ... by God that pipe is out there and now we can develop that land,” Ladner said. “If somebody comes in with a major industry and wants that property, it’s there. It’s ready to go. The infrastructure is there.”
The land was purchased from W.C. Fore for $7.5 million, and the Development Commission and Harrison County paid another $4.6 million to put infrastructure in place for the park, then known as Global Axis.
The county borrowed $7.5 million of that through a bond issue. It owes $6,336,000, an amount that is scheduled to be paid off in March 2030.
It took more than than three years to get to that point because nearby landowners didn’t like the idea of rezoning the property from residential and agricultural to industrial. They formed Concerned Citizens of Saucier and eventually took the county to court in a case that wound its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the county.
Ladner said before the project could be completed, the Great Recession hit. The Coast, business leaders say, has yet to fully recover.
The new guy
The HCDC and then-Executive Director Bill Hessell tried to get creative to market the land. For example, they convinced the county to spend $50,000 on a 3-D video presentation that would show potential developers what their plant would look like when completed. But Hessell said no one was willing to pay what the county was asking.
Even today, though, the site isn’t exactly “shovel ready.” There are some wetlands on the site.
And that is the project Bill Lavers inherited when he took over as executive director of HCDC. He said the job put him closer to where he grew up in Alabama and his daughter at Ole Miss, but he also saw a lot of potential in Harrison County.
“No other county in the United States has an Air Force Base, Seabee Base, port and the infrastructure that Harrison County has,” he said.
But dealing with wetlands is something he hadn’t encountered in his seven years at Snyder, Texas.
“Part of the problem with that (park), and just about everything in Harrison County, is my least favorite word, right now, and that’s wetlands,” he said. “I was in the desert of Texas and we laughed about people talking about wetlands.”
‘An active plan’
Now he’s not laughing, he’s meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trying to figure out how to best deal with the wetlands in the complex.
“We’ve got an active plan,” he said. “The Corps used to issue like a blanket permit on big tracts of land. They decided not to do that anymore. They used to issue 75 permits a month, now they issue 75 permits a year. So here we are five years later and we still don’t have an active site.”
He said if someone called about a 20-acre site, for example, he’d have to tell them it might be a couple of years before the permitting is done.
“So what we’re trying to do is get all that paperwork done, so that when you call, I can say, here’s your site, all your permitting, all you have to do is get a building permit, welcome to town,” he said. He’s working with the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport Authority that has a 220 acre site that has wetlands on it.
“Will I get it in 90 days or six months? I don’t know,” he said. “But we’re going to try. We’re going to stay after it.”
He can be right over
He said he has had one call about the park. He offered to drive over immediately with a contract but they weren’t quite ready.
“Once we get one person in there, they’ll kind of break the ice and other things will start happening,” he said. “But we have to get the wetlands resolved.”
He’d like to get a permit for a 100 acre site within the park even though no lot lines have been drawn. Then, he said, any project up to 100 acres would be permitted.
He didn’t seem concerned that the park has sat empty so long.
“A lot of times in economic development, you have to think of things 30, 40 years in advance,” he said. “You don’t think of it for three to five years like a normal business or a banker look at things. You have to think about where things are headed next.”
For one thing, in the years after Katrina when the park plan was hatched, insurance rates were higher south of I-10.
“In hindsight, was that a good decision, I don’t know,” he said. “We’re working on it every day.
“We just have to get out there and talk about it and getting others thinking, ‘hmmm, I had thought about that maybe I should go down there and look at that.’”