The Mississippi Gulf Coast sign stands at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Cowan Road in Gulfport. Credit: Tim Isbell/Mississippi Today

A coalition led by the University of Southern Mississippi that aims to jumpstart economic development on the Gulf Coast is a finalist for federal stimulus funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The Gulf Blue Initiative is one of 60 finalists for EDA’s “Build Back Better Regional Challenge,” a program funded by the American Rescue Plan Act to bolster pandemic recovery and help communities overcome decades of economic divestment. 

At this stage, GBI will receive $500,000 to further develop its proposal. In March, the EDA will award up to $100 million to 20-30 programs.

Coastal Mississippi has one of the nation’s most diverse collections of economic ventures seeking to capitalize on the resources of the ocean, according to a 2019 study. But two decades of floods, hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have left the Gulf Coast economy over-reliant on tourism, an industry that is vulnerable to those same disasters. 

“We need this for the Gulf Coast,” said Shannon Campbell, the senior associate vice president for USM’s Coastal Operations. “It’s time.”

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GBI’s proposal seeks to chart a way out of that cycle by using ARPA funds for three projects that will support efforts focused on developing more “blue economy,” STEM and light manufacturing jobs. Those include expanding USM’s Gulf Park Business and Workforce Education and Conference Complex and creating the “Gulf Blue accelerator program” and web portal for start-ups. 

The initiative estimates these projects will create more than 3,300 jobs, 15 new startups, and higher wages across the Coast. 

Campbell said the initiative intends for those jobs to be filled by Mississippians. 

“Stopping the brain drain is definitely the first priority,” she said. “We have some incredibly talented people that are leaving our state for better opportunities in other states, and we really have got to be more aggressive about how we keep them here.” 

The initial $500,000 will still be useful for the Coast even if the coalition does not receive a final award, Campbell said. GBI will use the initial round of funding to launch the accelerator program and bring in consultants who will create a plan that the coalition can use to help coastal communities develop their own strategic plans focused on the blue economy. 

“A well-designed, well-thought-out proposal will be to the benefit of the region for many years to come,” Campbell said.

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.