Sun Herald Editorial: Gov. Bryant Wants to Elevate Port's Role
On Sept. 12, 2008, Mississippians from the Coast to the Capitol were awed by a story on the front page of the Sun Herald that announced a strategy to turn the Port of Gulfport into the nation's largest container port.
Now many of those same Mississippians are shocked by stories that the "port of the future" may be a thing of the past.
Lenny Sawyer, president of the commission that oversees the state-owned port, contends "our goals for a restored port remain the same," but clearly expectations have been significantly diminished.
Four years ago, Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, echoed then-Gov. Haley Barbour when he proclaimed that the port "would be the single largest economic-development project in the state's history. It's a statewide project with implications from the Coast going all the way up the state to the Tennessee line."
Now port officials admit they are unable to maintain the ship channel to the port at its pre-Katrina depth of 36 feet, much less enlarge it to accommodate super-sized container ships.
For months, Gov. Phil Bryant has quietly expressed his displeasure with the rate of progress at the port, a state asset he considers a potential "game changer" for Mississippi's economy.
Now Bryant is going public with his concerns, as reported on today's front page.
"What I'd like to know is, is there a better path forward?" Bryant asked. Specifically, Bryant wants to consider using hundreds of millions of dollars to deepen and widen the port's ship channel rather than spending it to elevate port property as a safety measure.
While acknowledging that "I'm not the decider on this," Sen. Roger Wicker says "from my standpoint, I'm prepared to make deepening the channel to 45 feet a major project of mine."
"Federal, state and local leaders should be focused on attracting larger ships, which require 45-foot depth, to capitalize on this economic opportunity," said Wicker. "I don't think we're going to be New York Harbor, but I think 42 feet to 45 feet will get us to where we are a major player, not a sleepy little port."
That's certainly Bryant's attitude. "I do believe that's the type of thinking that we now need to move this port forward in a better direction, quicker, so we can receive the cascading effect from the ships that will obviously be looking for a better home when the larger ships that will need 50 feet, the new Panamax for example, when those large super-ships begin to come in to ports like Houston and San Diego."
Bryant is right.
It is time to put aside dated perceptions and misconceptions of the "port of the future."
Bryant has the authority to do it. Of the five port authority commissioners, three are appointed by the governor and, presumably, serve at his pleasure. The other two are appointed by Harrison County and the city of Gulfport. The commissioners hire the port director. So the governor has all the control over the port he needs to change policy there if he thinks it necessary.
Bryant's response to a progress report the port is to deliver to him by Tuesday will be interesting.
Already encouraging is Bryant's belief that the port project could create as many as 5,000 jobs -- nearly twice the number now expected -- if it is handled right.
It is now up to him to see that it is.
This editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board,which consists of President-Publisher Glen Nardi,Vice President and Executive Editor Stan Tiner,Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Flora S. Point, Circulation and Human Resources Director Wanda Howell, Marketing and Interactive Director John McFarland and Associate Editor Tony Biffle. Opinions expressed by columnists, cartoonists and letter writers are their own.