Steps coalition asks HUD to halt port expansion

January 13, 2012
By ANITA LEE - calee@sunherald.com

GULFPORT -- A coalition of community groups large and small is asking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demand repayment of federal funds already spent on state port expansion.

Attorney Reilly Morse told a group of about 100 Gulfport residents Thursday evening: “We’re basically telling HUD, ‘The state is not taking you seriously at this point, You’re going to have to take that money back. ... Pressure is being applied, and we hope to see some results quickly.”

Morse works for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a member of the Steps Coalition. Steps has been organizing communities most affected by the port expansion to ensure the HUD-financed project creates the promised 51 percent low- to moderate-income jobs, and also to reduce environmental impacts from associated ship and road traffic.

The port is expected to receive a total of $621 million in HUD funding for an 84-acre restoration and elevation of the West Pier that will more than quadruple container capacity by 2017.

The Mississippi Development Authority, which oversees the port and HUD funds, had promised in 2007 to sign agreements with four current tenants that would track job retention and creation. MDA was most recently supposed to have those agreements in place by mid-December.

Steps representatives said the agreements still have not been completed.
Steps also believes MDA job-tracking measurements are inadequate. MDA plans to track trucking jobs that the expansion generates through surveys rather than agreements with trucking companies. Steps pointed out that MDA, in its response to HUD, provided no draft survey or evidence that “unique software” promised has actually been developed.

MDA and port representatives did not attend the meeting.

Residents also are concerned about a roadway and high-speed rail being developed. A large conservation easement had been created to compensate for land being taken for the road, but property owner T. Jerard Ward and Ward Properties are fighting in federal court to keep the land. The city of Gulfport, which also opposes the easement along a commercial stretch of U.S. 49, is proposing that land along the banks of Turkey Creek in Gulfport and Long Beach be taken instead.