Mississippi OKs ambitious port project

Published 11:09 pm Saturday, October 25, 2008

An ambitious renovation of Mississippi’s Port of Gulfport was approved Friday, and the facility’s chief intends to begin soon using $570 million in federal money once earmarked for housing on the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast.

Port Executive Director Don Allee said the master plan’s adoption by state port commissioners was significant and will allow officials to begin engineering and permit work.

“It’s our desire to start drawing down on the grant money before the end of the year,” Allee said.

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The port project had drawn criticism from advocacy groups and members of Congress because of Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from a housing fund to help pay for it. Critics argued there were too many people without adequate, affordable housing in the region that was hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The federal government signed off on the diversion in January, but acknowledged the state’s unmet housing needs.

A coalition of advocacy groups has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to require the state to get federal approval for the new plan because the expansion has increased in size, said Reilly Morse of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

A spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, which oversees the Katrina funding, said every plan must be reviewed and approved by HUD. A HUD spokesman didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Currently, about 6,000 families are in temporary housing on the coast.

“Definitely, we feel it would have been better spent on housing. There are people on the coast who don’t know where they’re going to be living in the next few months when the trailers are taken away,” said James Crowell, Biloxi president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The new port plan calls for expanding the facility from its current 210 acres to nearly 1,000 acres. The expansion also would take the port south of its present location, requiring dredging and a deepening and widening of the channel. The property would be raised 25 feet above sea level to protect against future hurricane storm surge.

“By no means is this a cakewalk or rapidly done event,” said Allee, explaining the work will be done in phases over a number of years.

Also Friday, the port signed a lease with Chiquita Fresh North America to extend a partnership through the year 2019.

Barbour, who was on the Gulf Coast for the signing, issued a statement about the lease, but officials didn’t say how much it was worth. Barbour said Chiquita is the first corporate tenant of the port’s new plan. He said the agreement “will provide good jobs and a tremendous economic boost for the entire state as we continue to recover from Hurricane Katrina.”

Waheed Zaman, senior vice president of global product supply at Chiquita, said in the statement that the Gulfport facility will handle more than 750 containers for Chiquita per week.

Chiquita occupies nearly 25 acres at the port, which is the third busiest container port in the Gulf of Mexico.

Allee has said the port is considered the busiest green-fruit port in the Gulf, and had been a major exporter of poultry until Katrina knocked out its freezer. The port currently handles more than 200,000 containers a year.