BILL MINOR: Barbour’s port promise for Gulfport fills with silt

By Bill Minor

Haley Barbour pushed a nebulous pre-Katrina plan for greatly expanding and deepening the state-owned Port of Gulfport as his crowning legacy. He called it the “Port of the Future,” which would attract mega-ships after the celebrated 2015 wider Panama Canal. Barbour even grabbed $570 million federal Katrina low-income housing recovery funds to launch the superport scheme.
Well, he blew it. Big time.
Folks on the Gulf Coast recently finally woke up to the fact they had been sold a bill of goods by Barbour’s gauzy superport sales pitch. Now they’re up in arms.
“Shocked,” was the word heard in Gulfport environs when folks learned from port officials 10 days ago that the port won’t be able to dock mega-ships when the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2015. Further frustrating was the news from the state port official that promised deepening the harbor channel to 45 feet hasn’t even begun. Five years ago this column, along with the Steps Coalition watchdog group, voiced opposition to the Barbour scheme. We contended the port’s most immediate need was to replace the port’s freezer system destroyed by the storm. Refrigeration is essential to the export of chicken broilers, the port’s biggest and most labor intensive revenue producer, and broiler production is the state’s largest agricultural crop. The state was shipping thousands of pounds of chickens to China and Russia. Now Gulfport has lost that market to ports in Pascagoula, Mobile and New Orleans.
Even Sen. Thad Cochran, who four years ago had wrangled permission from the feds to allow Barbour and the Port Authority to divert the $570 million housing money to the port (contingent on creating 1,250 jobs for low- and mid-income workers) now appears to be bailing out. In a statement, Cochran said he had acted on Barbour’s “vision of what the state wanted.” He added that he wanted “to make sure that the state had the resources it needed to restore the port and build on it for the future.” Now, we learn, the state hasn’t come up with the matching money.
Sun-Herald editor Stan Tiner wrote Saturday the state Port Authority has done no more than “move some dirt” toward elevating the port’s West Pier and done nothing to widen or deepen the channel. Both, he pointed out, are basic to making the port competitive with other ports and handling mega-ships after the Panama Canal expansion.
Gov. Phil Bryant belatedly flew into Gulfport on Monday and behind closed doors apparently read the riot act to the Port Commission over the port’s lethargic progress.
Bryant himself shouldn’t be let off the hook for the dismal performance of port restoration, however. Earlier this year Bryant signed HB 1091 which in effect eliminated any real chance of stricter state oversight of the Port Authority’s handling of construction funds.
Meantime, freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo has joined the blame-game for the port debacle, condemning the Obama Administration for failure to provide adequate port maintenance. That’s a laugh since Palazzo votes down the line with the House hard-right GOPers blocking all spending and revenue bills. You get an idea of how congressional gridlock reaches all the way down here to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.