Port at Gulfport could have deals for two new tenants, director says

September 3, 2013
Paul Hampton

BILOXI -- The Port of Gulfport could have deals with two new tenants within six months, the port's executive director said Tuesday. News of the prospective tenants was revealed in a status report on the $570 million restoration project at the port by Gov. Phil Bryant's Office, the Mississippi Development Authority.

"The prospective tenants are in industry sectors that play a strong role in Mississippi's economy," the report says. "Their operations at the Port of Gulfport will open up trade lanes with northern Europe and Asia for the port and capitalize on the increase in trade with Asia that the Gulf Coast region will see as a result of the Panama Canal expansion."

Because of confidentiality agreements with the two, neither their names nor the nature of their business can be revealed, said port Executive Director Jonathan Daniels. He said an announcement with those details was two to six months away.

Reilly Morse, managing director at the Mississippi Center for Justice and a critic of the port project, called the report a public relations "piece of cotton candy."

"The governor and the port have suppressed this watchdog report," he said, referring to the legislative Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review report that was completed months ago but hasn't been made public. "If the Legislature hasn't figured that out, then heaven help us."

Denton Gibbes, who handles public relations for the port, said the port turned over to the media its responses to the PEER report.

"If we were trying to keep it secret, why would we give our response to the Sun Herald?" Gibbes said. "It's published on your website."

Daniels said the new tenants would definitely help the port toward its goal of 1,200 jobs, which was a requirement the Department of Housing and Urban Development made when it gave the port $570 million.

"It will have a significant impact on tonnage, vessel calls and ultimately that translates into more jobs," he said.

What HUD is actually demanding is 1,200 full-time equivalents.

"But not everybody will be down there 40 hours a week," Daniels said. "It's going to be spread out over a significant number of people. The HUD qualification for a full-time equivalent is 2,080 hours a year."

And, he said, the deals also hinge on the port's shipping channel being dredged to 36 feet. Daniels said the control depth is now 32 feet due to silting.

"The deepening is really being done in two phases," he said. "One is working with the Army Corps of Engineers in getting the funding and the processes in place so we can dredge down to our authorized depth of 36 feet."

He said the port would like an even deeper channel.

"The ultimate depth of that would be based on the findings of the environmental impact study ... which is evaluating from our current depth of 36 all the way up to 47."

He said the depth will depend on projected tonnage and business as well as long-term maintenance costs of keeping the channel at that depth.

The port also expects to seek bids in January on the largest phase of construction, Daniels said.

"That will be the site work, utility placement, road, rail connections on the site where the 84-acre infill has recently been completed."