Posted on June 27, 2022
Nothing about the proposal to create a “town center” in the coastal bedroom community of Gautier, Mississippi, made sense to Becky Montgomery Jenner.
The mall that once functioned as the town’s community hub is literally a shell of its former self, with a rusting metal structure covering a concrete slab where shoppers once browsed. In its place the city wants to create a downtown where people can live, shop and dine.
No developers, banks or investors have signed on to the project. An advisory board that Jenner sits on voted 6-1 against recommending the project for economic development funding paid by the oil company BP following its massive oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
State lawmakers put up $3.5 million anyway. Jenner couldn’t believe it.
“We’ve got this shopping center, defunct shopping center, in the middle of no-friggin’-where,” she said. Lawmakers “should look at which projects had the most viability, which projects had the greater return on the investment, which projects benefited the most people.”
The money that legislators sent to Gautier is part of a $750 million settlement paid by BP to compensate the state for the economic damage caused by the 2010 oil spill. Coastal Mississippi business leaders hoped the money would be used to transform the Gulf Coast economy, attracting new industries, creating jobs and lifting wages in communities dominated by low-paying service jobs.
But Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Restoration Fund is failing to meet any conventional measure of success for an economic development program, a joint investigation by the Sun Herald and ProPublica found.
Legislators put the power to spend the money in their own hands, and they’re doling it out without an overall plan. They’re using the cash to fill gaps in local government budgets and funding projects with few metrics for success. They’ve disregarded input of an advisory board made up of local business leaders, a committee lawmakers created when outlining how the money should be spent. In grant agreements, recipients have committed to creating few jobs, even fewer of them high-wage jobs.
Just 33 full-time equivalent jobs have been promised by the 24 projects for which Gulf Coast Restoration Fund grants have been finalized, according to grant agreements. Those projects have received $53.3 million — an average of $1.6 million per job. Economic development experts say that’s high.
“These are very legitimate questions of whether or not this money is really going to end up doing anything,” said advisory board chair Ashley Edwards, who is president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council.
The city of Gautier put the grant toward the $5 million purchase of the mall property, where a songwriters’ museum is also planned. The grant agreement requires the city to complete some improvements to an adjacent park that the city considers part of the town center. The city says an amphitheater being built at the park will provide a stream of customers and revenue.
Several promising projects have gotten money from the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, said Jamie Miller, chief operations officer at the Mississippi Development Authority, which handles economic development for the state.
But overall, the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund is being spent exactly as state Rep. Charles Busby worried it would be when lawmakers drafted the rules in 2018.
Back then, Busby said, he hoped the Legislature would rely on the Mississippi Development Authority to decide “how we could best utilize the money to do something that was truly transformational for the coast.
“With the system that we’re currently using, I just don’t see how that’s possible,” he said.