Harrison County

Mississippi expected 1,000 jobs at a Gulfport shipyard. But the deal is dead.

The deal is dead between the state and Topship, an affiliate of oil-services company Edison Chouest Offshore of Louisiana, for a shipyard on the industrial seaway that was supposed to create 1,000 jobs.

In 2016, the state pledged $36 million in grants, plus a host of tax incentives, in exchange for Topship’s agreement to create the jobs — with average pay of $40,000 a year — on property the Mississippi State Port Authority bought. The state has not paid out any of the incentives.

The agreement was voided in December, when Topship failed to hit benchmarks that required a $68 million investment and completed construction, said Melissa Scallan, public relations manager for the Mississippi Development Authority.

She said Topship proposed reducing its investment to $34 million and the number of jobs to 250, but the incentive package the Legislature approved called for the higher numbers.

The port spent $32 million on 116 acres off Seaway Road for the project. Port director Jonathan Daniels said Topship paid $16 million on the purchase price and is making monthly lease payments to the port of $85,000, plus interest.

Topship is using the land, he said, which includes 350,000 square feet of covered space and rail-mounted cranes.

“The project or projects certainly haven’t developed the way we had hoped, but we are willing to work with them so that they can maximize use of the site for job creation and business development,” Daniels said.

“It’s a very flexible facility. It really could provide for very unique production space.”

Daniels referred questions about plans for the property to Edison Chouest. Company representatives did not respond to an email or telephone calls from the Sun Herald.

In February 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant announced the deal with Topship in a crowded banquet hall atop the Hancock Bank building in downtown Gulfport. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo were also on hand for the announcement, as were local politicians and business leaders.

Although the oil industry experienced a price crash in 2014, Edison Chouest CEO Gary Chouest said at the time that he expected Topships’ investment in the project would pay off when oil prices rebounded.

The state Legislature approved the incentive package for Topship and Continental Tire in Clinton in a one-day special session, with some lawmakers complaining they had little time to review the 200-page bill, the Clarion Ledger reported at the time.

Chouest affiliates have failed to live up to previous incentive deals in both Louisiana and Mississippi. The development authority, which labeled the deal “Project Crawfish” during secret negotiations, conceded that it did not examine whether the previous incentives paid off before striking its agreement with Topship.

ECO affiliate Gulf Ship opened in 2006, promising 800 jobs at its shipbuilding facility, also off Seaway Road. Harrison County invested $12 million in Katrina recovery funds in the project.

Current job numbers were not available, but the company has in the past employed only up to 650 workers, according to a previous Harrison County Development Commission director.

The week before Bryant announced the Topship deal, Gulf Ship laid off workers and was down to only 110 employees.

The layoffs were not mentioned at the Hancock Bank event celebrating Topship’s arrival. Instead, current and former Gulf Ship employees called the Sun Herald about the layoffs after they saw the news about Topship.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription