Harrison County

Port expansion moves closer to elevation project

GULFPORT — The Port of Gulfport has just completed 60 acres of an 84-acre West Pier expansion and is moving closer to a project that will elevate the property to 25 feet above sea level.

Port Executive Director, Don Allee and several other port officials took the media on a tour Tuesday to show off progress.

The tour came two days before a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing at which the public can weigh in on port restoration and expansion plans.

The port is spending $570 million in federal Katrina recovery dollars on a restoration that will bring the West Pier to a total of 173 acres — room for four tenants, including its current three — Dole, Chiquita and Crowley. According to port figures, cargo capacity will increase 400 percent, also adding to road and rail traffic.

Expansion plans hinge on landing one new concession — a new shipping line or other business that would finance construction for its own operations, or for lease to tenants that handle cargo. The port also wants a 36-foot shipping channel dredged to a new depth of up to 45 feet to accommodate bigger ships.

Adding one tenant would increase capacity 300 percent.

A north-south rail line is being upgraded and a new connector road built from the port to Interstate 10 to handle additional traffic hauling goods to and from the port. The port also is readying property in North Gulfport to store containers during hurricanes.

Though expected to bring new jobs to the community, the improvements also have raised concerns — particularly in low-income and minority communities through which road and rail traffic will pass. Residents worry about air pollution, traffic congestion and changes to the characters of their neighborhoods.

The Corps of Engineers meeting will give them a chance to ask questions about port expansion and suggest what the corps should cover in an ongoing environmental-impact study of port plans. The study is expected to take three to four years.

Meanwhile, the port is trying to keep its current tenants happy until they can relocate to an elevated West Pier with updated infrastructure.“We’ve got to fill the capacity up here before we expand to the south,” said Joe Conn, the port’s restoration director.

Three to four years ago, the port was planning for an 8 percent annual business growth rate. Business has since slowed, although growth was 5 percent in 2010 over 2009.

The port is still working on a prospective tenant for when the current restoration is complete. Job creation is a primary requirement of the Community Development Block Grant program that is funding the work.

“Jobs are extremely important, said the port’s chief operating officer, Matthew S. Wypyski, “but it’s also about restoring and improving this facility, making it safer for the community.”