JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The longtime director of Mississippi's state-owned port will resign Nov. 2 amid increasing outside scrutiny over how the Gulf Coast facility is spending $570 million in federal money it was given after Hurricane Katrina.
Gulfport Port Director Don Allee's departure was announced Friday at a port commission meeting. At the same meeting, consultants reiterated a recommendation that the state port abandon its expensive project to elevate a pier from 10 feet above sea level to 25 feet above sea level. Port commissioners are supposed to meet again Monday to vote on that question.
Port spokesman Denton Gibbes said current COO Matthew Wypyski would serve as interim director until a permanent replacement is found.
After Katrina, then-Gov. Haley Barbour pitched a "port of the future" with a 50-foot-deep channel to lure ships sailing through the Panama Canal. To chase that vision, Republican Barbour orchestrated a transfer of federal housing money to the port, despite criticism that the money would've been better spent building and repairing houses destroyed by Katrina.
The port plan has been slow to materialize and critics say it won't generate enough jobs for the money.
A community group had long criticized plans to build an access road to Interstate 10 through a predominantly black neighborhood in west Gulfport. Questions got louder in recent months after Allee acknowledged that the $570 million doesn't include money to deepen the channel. In fact, the port is far from winning federal approval to dredge a channel today limited to 36 feet. That's the third-shallowest channel of 13 Gulf of Mexico ports surveyed by one consultant.
Allee said dredging to 50 feet isn't practical because other port facilities are too small for the largest ships, and said Gulfport's strategy would be to target smaller ships that might be displaced from ports that start taking megaships.
That admission brought more questions about whether the port was living up to its obligation to create jobs for low- and moderate-income community members in return for using federal money, including a push by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to move the work ahead faster.
It's unclear whether Bryant pushed Allee to resign.
"As you know, the port commissioner works at the will and pleasure of the commission," Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock wrote in an email. "The governor appreciates Mr. Allee's service and considering this is a personnel matter will have no further comment at this time."
Asked if the resignation was related to the port's troubles, Gibbes said "that was not stated during the meeting or afterward."
Others, though, said it was time for Allee to go.
"It's been evident for a while that some changes needed to be made at the port," said state Senate Ports and Harbors Committee Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.
The board may abandon spending up to $160 million to elevate the port's west pier. Consultants said that would delay completion of the overall project because fill dirt would have to settle, there would be no job benefit and tenants would probably still evacuate for hurricanes.
Instead, keeping the pier at 10 feet "lays the path to quicker job creation," consultants told the board Friday. They urged an immediate halt to the fill work, as well as a transfer of a planned intermodal rail transfer site off the pier. That would create 80 acres that could be marketed to new tenants by sometime in 2014. Today, Gulfport is reliant on four customers. Two are banana importers: Dole and Chiquita. The other two are DuPont Co. and Crowley Maritime Corp.
Roberta Avila, head of the Steps Coalition, the community group that has criticized port plans, said her group wants an expansion that creates jobs and doesn't hurt residents.
"In our view, it is the change of overall direction rather than the change of executive director that will determine the success of the port expansion," she said. "We welcome the port's willingness to re-evaluate its restoration and expansion plans."
Associated Press Writer Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report.
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