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$53.3 Million. 33 Jobs. No Plan. That’s How Mississippi Lawmakers Are Spending BP Oil Spill Money.

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by Anita Lee, Sun Herald

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Sun Herald. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Nothing about the proposal to create a “town center” in the coastal bedroom community of Gautier, Mississippi, made sense to Becky Montgomery Jenner.

The mall that once functioned as the town's community hub is literally a shell of its former self, with a rusting metal structure covering a concrete slab where shoppers once browsed. In its place the city wants to create a downtown where people can live, shop and dine.

No developers, banks or investors have signed on to the project. An advisory board that Jenner sits on voted 6-1 against recommending the project for economic development funding paid by the oil company BP following its massive oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

State lawmakers put up $3.5 million anyway. Jenner couldn’t believe it.

“We’ve got this shopping center, defunct shopping center, in the middle of no-friggin’-where,” she said. Lawmakers “should look at which projects had the most viability, which projects had the greater return on the investment, which projects benefited the most people.”

The money that legislators sent to Gautier is part of a $750 million settlement paid by BP to compensate the state for the economic damage caused by the 2010 oil spill. Coastal Mississippi business leaders hoped the money would be used to transform the Gulf Coast economy, attracting new industries, creating jobs and lifting wages in communities dominated by low-paying service jobs.

But Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Restoration Fund is failing to meet any conventional measure of success for an economic development program, a joint investigation by the Sun Herald and ProPublica found.

Becky Montgomery Jenner, a member of the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund Advisory Board. Lawmakers have approved projects the advisory board voted against recommending, like the purchase of a former mall site in Gautier. (Hannah Ruhoff/Sun Herald)

Legislators put the power to spend the money in their own hands, and they’re doling it out without an overall plan. They’re using the cash to fill gaps in local government budgets and funding projects with few metrics for success. They’ve disregarded input of an advisory board made up of local business leaders, a committee lawmakers created when outlining how the money should be spent. In grant agreements, recipients have committed to creating few jobs, even fewer of them high-wage jobs.

Just 33 full-time equivalent jobs have been promised by the 24 projects for which Gulf Coast Restoration Fund grants have been finalized, according to grant agreements. Those projects have received $53.3 million — an average of $1.6 million per job. Economic development experts say that’s high.

“These are very legitimate questions of whether or not this money is really going to end up doing anything,” said advisory board chair Ashley Edwards, who is president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council.

The city of Gautier put the grant toward the $5 million purchase of the mall property, where a songwriters’ museum is also planned. The grant agreement requires the city to complete some improvements to an adjacent park that the city considers part of the town center. The city says an amphitheater being built at the park will provide a stream of customers and revenue.

Several promising projects have gotten money from the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, said Jamie Miller, chief operations officer at the Mississippi Development Authority, which handles economic development for the state.

But overall, the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund is being spent exactly as state Rep. Charles Busby worried it would be when lawmakers drafted the rules in 2018.

Back then, Busby said, he hoped the Legislature would rely on the Mississippi Development Authority to decide “how we could best utilize the money to do something that was truly transformational for the coast.

“With the system that we’re currently using, I just don’t see how that’s possible,” he said.

Mississippi lawmakers awarded $3.5 million to the city of Gautier to buy the site of a former mall so the city can develop a town center. (Hannah Ruhoff/Sun Herald) The Fight Over BP Damages, Spending

For three months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in April 2010, millions of barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the coastline from Texas to Florida.

Workers in protective boots took the place of sunbathers on Mississippi beaches, scooping dark patches of oil from the white sand. Offshore, vessels trolled for oil instead of fish.

Gulf Coast states settled lawsuits against the company in 2015. For two years, Mississippi leaders battled over who would control the settlement money and where it would go.

The Gulf Coast Business Council, which represents business interests along the coast, proposed legislation that would have placed the money in a trust overseen by an independent, appointed board that would have authority to seek expert advice. That’s similar to how Florida decided to handle the money.

There, most of the BP money recovered by the state goes to Triumph Gulf Coast, a nonprofit corporation. A seven-member board, appointed by state elected officials, approves projects for funding.

The nonprofit’s staff has vetted projects and positioned them for approval by the time they reach the board, said Triumph Gulf Coast economic advisor Rick Harper. “Our statute requires us to have performance metrics,” he said.

The BP money is meant to make up for “revenue the state of Florida didn’t receive when people couldn’t plan their beachfront wedding back in 2010 or ’11,” he said. “And so, it’s our responsibility to make sure there’s a good return on those investments.”

Lawmakers in Louisiana and Alabama, which received $1 billion each from BP for economic damages, are using their settlements to fill budget holes, fund Medicaid and build roads and bridges. Mississippi House Speaker........

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