Port expansion plans

By Anita Lee, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Apr. 2–GULFPORT — The state port is on track to begin elevating its property to 25 feet in the fall.

A dozen firms have been hired for an expansion that eventually would triple the port’s size. The port received $570 million in federal Katrina recovery dollars for part of the expansion. Work to fill water bottoms on the West Pier, planned before Katrina, is well under way.

Joe Conn, the port’s director of disaster recovery, updated the Sun Herald on expansion plans Thursday.

The use of federal Community Development Block Grant money received after the storm requires another federal environmental review expected to take months rather than years.

Conn hopes the permit will be issued by fall, which would allow the port to fill the final 24 acres of an 84-acre West Pier expansion and elevate the land to 25 feet above sea level for storm-surge protection. If the 84 acres are filled, port tenants would move from temporary quarters to new facilities on the West Pier.

Permits for further expansion will take three to four years because of extensive environmental review by federal and state agencies. Construction should be completed within 10 years. A total of 681 acres would be added to the port, expanding it to 954 acres. Though federal money will cover most of the work, the port will be advertising for a major new tenant to pay for the final phase of West Pier expansion.

“Some of this depends on what the economy does,” Conn said. “The growth the nation was seeing five years ago is just not happening now.”

The port hopes to position itself as the largest container cargo operation on the Gulf. The port’s plans coincide with the Panama Canal expansion, which should be finished in 2014 and should increase shipping traffic along the East Coast and Gulf.

To handle bigger ships, the port also is pursuing federal money and permits to widen and deepen the shipping channel from the port to Ship Island.

Conn estimates the port will outgrow its current road system in six to eight years. The Mississippi Department of Transportation is expected to start work soon on a four-lane expressway to connect the port and Interstate 10. However, the exact route through west Gulfport is still being discussed. Conn said the port favors the current connection at 30th Avenue and U.S. 49.

Virginia Wrecking Co. of Daphne, Ala., is demolishing the old Copa Casino pier and infrastructure on the port’s north end. Conn said the docking area will be usable for a cruise ship. He said the port would not make much money off a cruise ship concession, but it would be good for the city.

“There are no firm plans at all,” he said, “but it would be possible.”

The port’s north end is temporary home to tenants during West Pier work. But it could one day serve as public space. The port plans to solicit ideas for the area, which a master plan has suggested would be a good home for restaurants, retail and entertainment.

Commercial development would be a natural expansion of the downtown redevelopment district, where property owners also are being encouraged to include apartments or condominiums above renovated storefronts.

To the east, a Michigan company is seeking permits for a casino in Gulfport’s harbor on property once occupied by Marine Life and Misco Marine.

Conn’s old employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is a key player in the port’s permitting process. Conn, who started work for the port in August, previously worked on large military- construction projects for the Corps of Engineers.

“I wish we had everything permitted and could be out there building right now,” he said.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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