Rising from the Storm

Pascagoula, Mississippi

Nine years ago, 92 percent of Pascagoula, Mississippi was underwater. A center of Gulf Coast industry, the ship building town was nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina. But this resilient community refused to be drowned out…
“We really seized on the opportunity,” says Jen Dearman, Pascagoula’s Director of Community and Economic Development. “And that is really how we saw it – as an opportunity rather than just a tragedy. Yes we were impacted, yes it was awful, but it was also a chance for us to rebuild in a way that we wanted to. Not just to rebuild back what was, but to rebuild better and stronger.”

Before Katrina, prime real estate languished under ramshackle buildings and industrial decay. “Historically, Pascagoula has used its waterfront for industry,” Ms. Dearman explains. Now, a charming retail center dubbed Anchor Square makes good use of the city’s waterfront. “We didn’t have anything like Anchor Square before Hurricane Katrina,” Ms. Dearman points out. “We had a riverfront development site that used to have a glove factory and a cat food factory that were abandoned for years.”

To create Anchor Square, the city transformed 16 Katrina Cottages donated by FEMA into an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, galleries, and studios. Situated on a welcoming boardwalk overlooking the water, the site has become a favorite destination for discerning shoppers as well as a key business incubator for the city. “We have had seven businesses transition out of Anchor Square, mostly to the downtown core,” Ms. Dearman reports. “It has completely revitalized the historic downtown area. We did have 12 vacant storefronts; now we have three.”

Since Anchor Square launched, retail in Pascagoula has continued to grow. “It has spurred other businesses to open up and to show the rest of the coastline that [retail success] is possible here in Pascagoula,” Ms. Dearman says. “There is a market here.”

And Anchor Square is just the beginning. Ever since Hurricane Katrina swept through, the city has been focused on making the most of its lovely waterfront location. “Our greatest resource is our location,” Ms. Dearman points out. “And we have got to start promoting, and emphasizing, and enhancing that. So we have had lots of public facility projects. We have invested over $4 million dollars on our beachfront.”

An additional $3.5 million in grant funds is being invested in Lowry Island. Ideally located for recreation, the site now has a boat launch, piers, and an open park area that may soon become part of a retail development. Nearby, another prime riverfront location has been reinvented into a gorgeous venue for special events – and is currently being eyed by a developer. If all goes well, the site will soon have new restaurants, condos, and retail space.

Pascagoula’s new developments are creating a lot of buzz, but it is important to point out that the city already enjoyed a strong economic foundation before its recent renaissance. “We are privileged to be surrounded by industry,” says Ms. Dearman. “A lot of other communities in Mississippi or around the nation are struggling to find jobs. We’ve got a handle on that. We’ve got jobs.”

Perhaps most notably, Chevron has a substantial oil refinery in Pascagoula. The operation employees 1,597 people, boasts an annual payroll of $400 million, and provided $24.5 million in property taxes to the county in 2013, according to Chevron’s website.

“Chevron has just celebrated their 50 year anniversary here. They have been such a great community partner throughout their 50 years here.” Chevron’s ongoing relationship with Pascagoula demonstrates the community’s business friendly environment. “It is a testament to the community, to our workforce, and to their corporate leadership that they chose Pascagoula to be their headquarters and that they choose to stay here,” Ms. Dearman points out.

After a recent expansion, the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery is one of the largest oil refineries in North America, processing a whopping 330,000 barrels of crude oil every day. And, the refinery churns out much more than many people realize. “Everybody thinks of Chevron and thinks of oil and gasoline, but there is so much more to Chevron than just those products,” Ms. Dearman reports. “The base oils that they are producing are a key chemical component in most plastic production,” explains Anne Pitre, Public Relations Specialist for Pascagoula. “Things like toothbrushes, pens, school and office supplies – if they are manufactured in the United States, chances are they got to you by way of Pascagoula.”

Ship building is also a key industry in Pascagoula. With 800 acres and 11,000 employees, Ingalls Shipbuilding is the biggest employer in town and the largest manufacturing employer in the entire state of Mississippi. “Ship building is really our foundation,” Ms. Dearman says. “It is a very important part of our history and our future.” Pascagoula’s location makes it ideal for the industry. “We have the deepest natural port and inlet in Mississippi. That is one of the reasons that Ingalls and so many ship building facilities are located here.”

Pascagoula’s strong industrial base also provides the support needed to run a winning school system. “They [local industry] provide a great framework so our schools can be successful,” Ms. Pitre points out. “It has led to much greater educational opportunities; schools can fulfill their mission and vision. To me, economic development starts in the school system because that is what turns out an educated workforce that goes back in the community and helps continue Pascagoula’s progress forward.”

The city also has the funding to conserve its natural assets and promote outdoor recreation. “The city has really put an emphasis on our ecotourism,” Ms. Dearman reports. The region is rich in waterways and Pascagoula recently hired an outdoor recreation specialist to help residents and tourists get the most out of these scenic waters. A certified kayak instructor, the new recreation specialist offers kayak and canoe lessons “to give people an idea of how they can get out on the river with their family,” says Ms. Pitre. “They can get out in our waterways without having to invest $50,000 on a boat. They can invest a few hundred over the course of a year to rent the kayak and get out and enjoy the water.”

Getting people out on the water also helps to educate them about the region’s ecosystems and natural habitats. “It brings people in direct contact with the flora and fauna that we have here,” Ms. Pitre points out. Pascagoula’s waters are also ideal for fishing, and, Ms. Pitre says, “We are seeing an increase in deep sea fishermen here. Pascagoula has the deepest water on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The biggest anglers know that the best fishing location is off the coast of Pascagoula.” With so much to offer, Pascagoula aims to continue to ramp up its recreation program. “The outdoor recreation development is definitely headed in the right direction,” says Ms. Dearman.

To be sure, Pascagoula has reinvented itself since Hurricane Katrina hit, turning tragedy into opportunity. Some of the most important aspects of the community have not changed, however. “Although we have moved in an innovative, progressive direction, we still maintain our small town feel,” Ms. Dearman states. “You walk down the street and everybody still says hello to you. The quality of life is extraordinary here.”

Relatively new to the city, Ms. Pitre says that she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the warm welcome. “I am very impressed with the quality of life here,” she says. “There is so much to do and so much to see and the atmosphere is truly second to none. The people have been very welcoming. They are very open and very friendly. It is really a great place to live, it is a great place to work, and it is a great place to visit.” The city is always eager to embrace newcomers, Ms. Dearman adds. “No matter if you are single, or starting a family, or an empty nest, there is always a place for you here in Pascagoula.”

September 23, 2020, 6:11 AM EDT