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SILOS IN THE MIDDLE

GULFPORT - The State Port Authority tabled decisions on lease issues at its monthly meeting Thursday, intending to negotiate a new lease for the Island View Casino and postponing a decision with DuPont.

The commissioners also heard a pitch from a new company that wants to use the much-discussed storage silos at the heart of the DuPont debate to import cement.

Gulfside Casino Partners, which owns the newly opened Island View Casino, is asking for an extension through 2057.

"I'll be 109, and I plan to be here," joked Commissioner Frances Turnage.

The casino developers want the longer lease to help financing efforts for their next round of expansion, which should be announced early next year. They asked for removal of a clause that allowed the port to cancel the lease if the port needed to expand; the casino must control the property to meet new shore-based gambling laws.

The scope of changes, as well as the state of the current lease - convoluted by nine amendments since initially being entered into with the Grand Casino - made the commissioners decide to have the two sides' lawyers draw up a new lease.

Gulfside co-owner Rick Carter said at least four different groups of corporate lawyers have had their fingers in the lease and it's time to clean it up.

"A lot of it's not even meaningful to what we're trying to do," he said.

The new document would likely form a template for future projects on the port's property abutting U.S. 90, which it sees being used by other non-maritime interests.

"We're really entering a whole new era," said Commissioner John Rester.

Carter said Gulfside has been pleased with its relationship with the port, the city and Harrison County.

"It really has been an effort by all parties," he said. "The port's been great to us and we're glad to be in that mode with them."

The commission tabled decision on awarding a three-year, stopgap lease to DuPont. Before Hurricane Katrina, the company used facilities at the port to mix ilmenite ore for operations at its DeLisle plant.

The handling equipment on the silos that sit on the port's west pier was destroyed and the company severed its lease after the storm.

The port prefers to use the west pier for container terminals and ideally would want to shift DuPont's operations to the east. There's also uncertainty about DuPont's future deep-water port needs.

"I'm reluctant to say we're at square one, but they clearly have some operating needs and we're clearly trying to rebuild and accommodate them to the degree we can," Port Executive Director Don Allee said. "But we didn't reach any resolution whatsoever today."

"We will continue our discussions with the port of Gulfport and we believe this short- to mid-term agreement would be in the best interest of DuPont and the port," company spokesman Nate Pepper said.

New South Materials made a presentation at the opening of Thursday's meeting to try to use the silos in question. Long Beach native Allen Baker, the new company's vice president, said it could bring in a ship about 60 days after reaching an agreement with the port.

The ship would bring in Portland cement, a key component of concrete, which would be moved via pneumatic lines - think big vacuum cleaner - to the silos.

It would initially be moved from that point by truck, but eventually by rail once the piers are rehabilitated.

The company says it's trying to fill a widening gap in cement consumption over domestic production. It can tap into sources as close as the Caribbean and northern South America and as far away as China, the world's largest cement producer.

New South Materials estimates it can sell the cement at 10 to 25 percent lower prices than competitors serving the market, and those savings will make South Mississippi's recovery dollars go further.

Allee said the port has talked with several cement traders recently, including this one.

The port commission went into executive session with its master planning consultants to review the plan, and went to Jackson later in the day to meet with staff from Gov. Barbour's office and the Mississippi Development Authority.

Allee said getting that plan complete by next month is the main focus. He said that's the key to their future action with DuPont.

Baker said his company is ready to move now.

"They've been fencing for over a year now without making any kind of commitment," he said. "They've had opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to close the deal and every time they've backed away.

"I'll tell you what, we're ready to do business. They don't need those facilities; I need those facilities. We will generate enormous revenue and cost savings for the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

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