Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hancock County, Mississippi Implementation Gains Momentum

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects. 

Hancock County, Mississippi is situated on the Gulf Coast about an hour’s drive east of New Orleans. It is a beautiful place with a proud history that became a preferred location for second-home owners from New Orleans and other areas. It is home to the mammoth Stennis Space Center, a government city formerly charged with testing engines for the space shuttle program that is now evolving into new functions. The eclectic city of Bay St. Louis gained renowned as an artist’s colony and tourist destination. Then, in 2005, everything changed. Hurricane Katrina made its final landfall at the mouth of the Pearl River in western Hancock County and proceeded inland, leaving a trail of destruction in its path that the Gulf Coast is still recovering from to this day. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Hancock County and other Gulf Coast communities to rebuild infrastructure, housing, commercial and government buildings, hospitals, and a whole range of other essential facilities and services. Building off the years-long momentum from hurricane-recovery efforts, the Hancock County Development Commission (HCDC) – the area’s principal economic development organization – contracted with Market Street Services in 2011 to facilitate a planning process that eventually evolved into the Hancock Tomorrow strategy. Even then, Hancock was demonstrating its resiliency with its population approaching pre-Katrina levels and its economy diversifying into more of a services-based model. However, Hancock County’s quality of life amenities had not caught up to its robust complement of employers, infrastructure, and federal facilities. Stakeholders reported that the County had a difficult time retaining and attracting young professionals, Stennis employees, second-home buyers, and tourists looking for a critical mass of amenities similar to the larger regions of New Orleans and Gulfport/Biloxi. 

After months of research and public input, the project’s Steering Committee approved a strategy with four principal goal areas: Economic Vitality, Community of Choice, 21st Century Workforce, and Visionary Leadership. Each goal addressed a different component of Hancock’s competitive position and attractiveness as a place to live, work, and visit. Work groups were created to implement each of Hancock Tomorrow’s four goal areas. Our client reports that the spirit of collective purpose that took hold in Hancock after Katrina has slowly but surely begun to return to the County’s leaders and citizens. After taking time to “learn how to play together” again, County and city stakeholders have come together and tackled a number of key strategic priorities. Though implementation began a little over a year ago, Hancock County, the HCDC, and the men and women working to put Hancock Tomorrow into action already have a growing list of accomplishments that they can point to as an indication that the strategy has taken hold and is building momentum. Among these early victories are: 

• Coordination of county leaders to address the insufficiency of hotel accommodations, which has resulted in the funding for and the receipt of 3 RFQ’s for an in depth county-wide hotel development feasibility study;
• Development of a relocation package marketing Hancock County to prospective new residents and corporate HR directors; 
• Launching of a County-wide Adopt-a-Highway program; 
• Planting of numerous trees and foliage along the beach and development of scenic byways amenities; 
• Creation of an “environmental court” that is going after owners of derelict and unsightly properties; 
• Development of an 11th-grade student leadership program; 
• Provision of free training to local small business people and entrepreneurs; 
• Beginning an ambassador training program for front-line tourism workers; 
• Increasing cooperation among local mayors and the County Board of Supervisors; 
• Developing a long-range workforce development vision and strategy for Hancock, including provision of soft-skills training; 
• Operating the newly opened Infinity Science Center just outside of Stennis; 
• And many others. 

Our client reports that much activity has been generated simply from local residents coming together and working collectively on issues that are important to the County’s future. New connections are being made, new partnerships launched, and new awareness is being built about all that is taking place to move Hancock forward. The community is a shining example of building strength and resolve from adversity and sustaining that energy for transformative efforts beyond simply recovering from disaster to imagining a Hancock that exceeds people’s hopes and expectations for what the County can become.