Former Governor Haley Barbour says he still thinks it's possible to deepen the ship channel leading to the port of Gulfport - a move he says would be a huge economic boost to the state. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports.
The port received $570 million in Katrina funds for a restoration and expansion project. But Barbour says his biggest disappoinment when it comes to the Katrina recovery is that the state wasn’t able to get the port’s ship channel deepened.
"Because the port of Gulfport can be much, much, much bigger and a much more powerful economic engine for the coast and all of Mississippi, but not as long as we have a 36-foot channel," Barbour says.
Barbour says deepening the channel could still happen, perhaps using some of the BP oil spill money that’s coming to the state over the next decade and a half.
"The ships that are coming through Panama Canal after its expansion is over in the next year or two - they're going to be looking for deeper channels, larger ports, and I hope we will be able to get that channel done," he says. "Then we can build I-310. We've already improved the railroad. So the port can be much bigger."
But, not everyone thinks a deeper channel is the right direction for Gulfport.
Howard Page of the Steps Coalition says a focus on deepening the channel misses the point of the port’s comparative advantage, especially against nearby ports such as Mobile and New Orleans.
"Gulfport is a smaller port - it has certain advantages," Page says. "One of them has long been that we export a Missisippi product - we export Mississippi chicken exports. If we returned our chicken freezers, we could go back to that business, which has historically created hundreds of jobs."
Page says oil field services, such as the port’s new tenant, oil pipeline company McDermott, are also a sensible fit and don't require a major expansion.
Page also argues that the spill money is better used for projects such as improving water quality, rebuilding wetlands and helping the seafood industry.
Update: Page notes he is not opposed to having the channel deepened "if the Corps of Engineers pays for it because it is economically viable. I am opposed to using state funds for a project the Corps would not approve for economic reasons." If the Corps does not find deepening the channel economically viable, Page says he prefers the port focus on its areas of competitive advantage, such as the chicken exports.