Gulf Coast Business Council 

Helping shape major policies in Southern Mississippi

By Lisa Monti

The Gulf Coast Business Council was formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when devastated communities in coastal Mississippi faced an unknown future and years of rebuilding. Nearly 20 years later, the nonprofit organization is still helping to shape major policies in the state’s three coastal counties.

“A group of business leaders led by Anthony Topazi (of Mississippi Power Co.) thought it was necessary that the business community needed to play a direct role in the recovery of the coast,” said Jamie Miller, GCBC’s president and CEO. Before joining the Business Council, Miller was deputy director for the Mississippi Development Authority.

Dave Dennis, chairman of Specialty Contractors in Gulfport, was one of the original members who incorporated the Business Council. “We decided instead of taking a shotgun approach in Jackson or elsewhere, we would be more focused and specific on critical issues that needed to be addressed,” said Dennis.

Even as the Coast was still getting its footing after the 2005 hurricane, two other significant events compounded the problems—the economic downturn of 2008 and the BP oil spill in 2010. 

“The Business Council got involved and helped steer policy to make sure our recovery was in hand,” said Miller. “Since then, the organization has mostly stayed true to its core belief, advocating things related to economic policy.” The policies overlap with education, workforce development, tourism and other areas that impact the region’s economy, he said.

Besides helping with disaster recovery, the Business Council was instrumental in shaping the Coast’s regional tourism organization, replacing several local efforts to promote the area. “It took a lot of hard work,” said Ben Hunter, GCBC’s vice president for Investor Relations “There was a lot of pushback but Coastal Mississippi has been an immensely successful organization for our regional economy.”

The Business Council was also involved with large economic projects like the Port of Gulfport expansion and the Gulfport/Biloxi Airport expansion, said Hunter. The last “big battle” the business group faced was making sure the state’s BP settlement fund was created and was invested in the coastal areas most impacted by the Gulf of Mexico spill.

“There were not guardrails in place to keep the settlement money from being spent all over the state,” said Hunter. “We believe very strongly that the spill was here and the lion’s share of settlement money should be invested in transformational projects here. We lobbied very hard, coordinated with all the local chambers and formed the BP Task Force. It was a pretty dramatic couple of months.” 

The Gulf Coast Restoration Fund guaranteed 75% of the money would be invested in the lower six coastal counties.

Today, GCBC has grown to 271 members, an all-time high number. Members fund the council through fees which are based on the number of employees. About 170 members are private sector entities including such major employers as Hancock Whitney Bank, Chevron, Ingalls Shipbuilding and Yates Construction along with utilities, hospitals, casinos and aerospace companies. Members include local elected officials and universities. Hunter said member companies represent more than 70% of the coast’s workforce. 

The Business Council keeps its members engaged and informed about regional public policy issues through Regional Policy Forums and the annual State of the Coast meeting, which focuses on an economic topic, said Miller.

In general, the  state of the Coast today is “a story of great resilience” that has overcome everything from the pandemic to hurricanes, said Miller. 

“Municipalities have really created unique places to visit and to live and sales tax collections are at an all time high. Gaming had a great recovery and we’re adding more visitors, who are spending more money when they visit. So from the hospitality and tourism standpoint, I think it’s really positive,” said Miller. “The Coast has also been able to recruit new companies such as Ocean Aero from California and Relativity Space at Stennis Space Center. And Jackson County continues to do well with its traditional industries and new investments that are happening there.”

The Business Council’s most recent initiative is the Strategic Regional Alignment Agreements, formalized with 10 economic groups from across the Coast. One of the goals of the agreements is highlighting the region’s competitive advantages and pursuing new ones.

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast has a diverse economy made up of many sectors, including aerospace, shipbuilding, financial services, gaming, tourism and military,” said Miller of the agreement. “We will all have greater success by working together.” 

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