Paul Hampton

What would your big, bold idea be to transform the Coast?

Omaha World Herald

As good as it is to see Democrats and Republicans commit to working together, as amazing as the crowd was at the annual Coast Legislative Reception, as encouraging as it is to hear lawmakers say they are close to having a bill that the Coast delegation can agree on, a major piece of the puzzle remains missing.

That piece is the “transformative” project. Leaders say that’s how we should spend the money from the BP economic damages settlement. About $700 million will be left to spend when all is said and done. The state’s leaders have made it clear: They want a project that would build on the Coast economy, create jobs and more revenue for the state — a return on investment.

Could $700 million do all that? A million dollars isn’t what it used to be. But, as some have said, it could be seed money to be leveraged to get grants and loans for that big bang project.

But what would the Coast look like after dust from that big bang settles? If we are going to transform, what are we going to transform into?

Consider Manhattan, Kansas, which landed one of those transformative projects. It’s population is around 54,000, comparable to the biggest Coast cities. It landed the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a lab that Mississippi wanted as well. Manhattan, though, had Kansas State University. It has a lot going on, including an ambitious project to transform its downtown by bulldozing a bunch of unused properties. Still, the lab is a game-changer and a catalyst for surrounding development.

One dig I hear over and over about the Coast is that regardless of whether they’re public or private, big-ticket projects won’t land on the Coast because they would be endangered by hurricanes. Manhattan, though, is one F-5 tornado from oblivion.

We have both the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey Tradition, and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Stennis Space Center. Can we leverage those as Manhattan did KSU? KSU’s goal is to crack the Top 50 in research schools. What could ours be? Rising to the top in workforce training for the region?

To do that, we have to start thinking of ourselves as a region. All the time.

Maybe we’d like a transformational change in our tourism industry. I hear a lot about a desire to become a top tier destination. (Insert snickers here.)

We’re a beach community surrounded by swamps, Right? Our summers are unbearable, right?

In the 1960s, Walt Disney began buying up swamp land in central Florida for $180 an acre. I’d love to know how many of his underlings were muttering behind his back. Cheap land was just part of the attraction, though. Another was the interstate being built smack in the middle — like the interstate that blasts straight through the heart of the Coast.

No. I don’t recommend digging huge lakes and filling our wetlands with the dirt. I’m just pointing out, again, that communities the size of ours have undergone significant transformations. We can agree that Orlando was transformed, correct?

There are examples all across the United States. The Coast, for example. I haven’t lived here long enough for the crackpots to consider me a Mississippian but I was here before casinos. And I probably wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the transformation they brought to the Coast. (If you’re looking for someone to blame.)

We can transform ourselves, or wait for the next Walt Disney to fly over in a helicopter and exclaim, “Looky, there.”

Or we can blow our windfall on one of those weed-choked and empty industrial parks or any of those economic development schemes that sound so good on paper. As one smart fellow has often told me, we’d be better off using the money to pay down our government debt.

So, you have your assignment. No idea is too big. Most of them are too small. It has to be big. It has to be bold. Otherwise, we’ll be splitting the pot four ways with the folks up north.