For more than five years, the Steps Coalition has supported a community-led effort by the Port Campaign Coalition to require the state port at Gulfport and Mississippi Development Authority to fulfill its duties to retain and create jobs while being a good neighbor to the affected neighborhoods. But, just as with any public accountability, whether it's the Kemper County power plant, corruption in the Department of Marine Resources, or the neglect of more than 5,000 Katrina-damaged households, there always will be some public officials who will attack those who push for accountability.
Since 2011, civic leaders have joined hundreds of local residents in meetings hosted by the PCC in support of jobs and environmental justice at the state port. Over time, this advocacy gathered wider support and forced badly needed changes. In the summer of 2011, the revelation by port officials at a PCC public meeting that they did not intend to attract new super-sized cargo ships sent a shock wave through state and local political leaders. Soon afterward, Gov. Phil Bryant pressured the port to cut short its plans to elevate the west pier to 25 feet above sea level.
Since that time, a series of revelations has confirmed the charges by the PCC of inflated jobs data at the port. In 2007, the port had predicted it would retain and create a total of 2,586 direct maritime jobs by 2015. Instead, as of September, the port has lost more than 400 existing jobs and added only 99 new jobs for a total of just 913 retained and created jobs. Leaders at MDA and the port have attacked not just the PCC, but anyone who highlighted this abysmal performance, including the legislative Performance Evaluation Expenditure Review agency. After HUD required state officials to meet stricter standards, state officials in desperation now have urged HUD to count casino-hotel staff toward their goal. Meanwhile, after refusing in 2010 to enter into a community benefits agreement, the port met individual demands from the PCC to abandon an undesirable inland port location, and to green the port's operations. This advocacy continues to ensure MDA and the port honor their obligations.
The state port's good news that TopShip will invest in the inland port property on Seaway Road was made possible in part by the PCC's pressuring the port to abandon that undesirable inland port planned for North Gulfport. More accountability than ever before will be required as new public incentives are offered to TopShip to ensure delivery on the promised jobs and the benefits to low- and moderate-income residents.
Fiscal conservatives such as Mayor Billy Hewes ought to celebrate citizen engagement for wise use of taxpayer dollars and reliable jobs creation. Instead, Mayor Hewes has derided the Steps Coalition in order to discredit its efforts on a different, unwise proposal: the Butch Ward "Portopolis" project, now in new, "sensitive" wrapping paper. As the Gulf Coast has learned from its experience with other father-and-son public figures, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Twice before, the Ward family has sought to fill more than half of a square mile (435 acres) of wetlands in the Turkey Creek watershed, which would send water into more North Gulfport homes; and twice before, the Wards have withdrawn the proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition. Nothing about Jerard Ward's latest effort makes this proposal any better than the two previous failed attempts. More than 500 North Gulfport residents signed a petition to the Corps of Engineers opposing Jerard Ward's proposal because it will have the same disastrous results.
The Steps Coalition and the PCC remain proud of their record of citizen advocacy with public officials who are accustomed to unquestioning compliance with their agenda, no matter how ill-advised. We will continue to stand up for communities who must confront and speak truth to those in power to ensure everyone has communities worth calling home.
Signed by Port Campaign Coalition members: Roberta Avila, executive director of Steps Coalition, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Wonda Holton, Gulf Coast Chapter of Sierra Club; Rose Johnson, North Gulfport Community Land Trust; and Andrew Whitehurst, Gulf Restoration Network.