GoCoast 2020 looking for South Mississippi’s Ideas

GULFPORT — Community leaders don’t know how much money the RESTORE Act will bring to South Mississippi or when it will arrive, but they are getting ready for what they say is a one-time opportunity to make an impact that will last for generations.

In August, Gov. Phil Bryant tapped the leaders to form an advisory group and directed eight teams to determine how best to spend what could be billions of dollars in fines that will be directed to the Gulf states as recompense for the BP oil spill.

On Wednesday at Great Southern Club in Gulfport, each group gave a status report on their focus — economic development, small business, infrastructure, eco-restoration, research and education, seafood, tourism, workforce development.

Next week, they go on the road in each of the three Coast counties to get community input.

“We want to hear from the citizens on the Coast about this process, where we are and where we should go,” said Trudy Fisher, director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Bryant chose her to oversee the GoCoast 2020 effort. Much like the efforts to build back better after Hurricane Katrina, this process focuses on renewal and restoration after the 2010 oil spill. It is designed to be Coast-driven instead of bringing in experts from other areas of the country.

The committees have a Nov. 2 deadline to submit their reports. Fisher said at the halfway point teams working independently have come to realize how they build upon each other.

Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel outlined plans to support small-business incubators and to find a way to transfer new technologies from NASA’s Stennis Space Center and area universities to Coast businesses. “We see the RESTORE Act as the gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

Jim McIngvale with Huntington Ingalls shipbuilding said although a skilled workforce is key, “we start from a baseline that is fairly scary,” He said there aren’t enough people with midlevel skills to fill the jobs available. South Mississippi doesn’t have to fix workforce development, he said, “you have to focus on it,”

William Walker, director of the state Department of Marine Resources, said education efforts from kindergarten through Ph.D. levels should emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics to make the area competitive with the world economy.

“I’ve encouraged my team to be bold, to think outside the box,” said state Sen. Michael Watkins, who co-chairs the infrastructure committee. His team proposes focusing on creating and retaining jobs and enhancing existing facilities.

“This money is coming without strings within the eight committees that are being set up,” he said. “We want to do incredible projects.”

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