Gulf Coast Business Council Spins
By Keith Burton - GCN 8/22/07
The Gulf Coast Business Council, a secretive group of business individuals from across the Coast's three counties has released a mostly glowing report of the progress of the Coast's Katrina recovery as the area nears the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The Gulf Coast Business Council is a private, by invitation only, group of powerful local business executives and individuals that was formed shortly after Katrina. The council took over for a similar group called Coast 21. Its membership also includes individuals from the Coast's major news media including the Sun Herald and WLOX. But as its total membership list is kept secret, the actual membership is not publicly known.
The council's "Two Years After Katrina" report" stems from a request to its members to provide positive information regarding the recovery to offset and inoculate the public over what is expected to be negative national media and some local media reports during the Katrina anniversary. Brian Sanderson, the council's director, notified members August 2, to submit the reports.
In his letter, Sanderson said:
"As you have already seen, the national media will have major focus on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when reporting on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We anticipate many of these stories will have a negative frame regardless of the specific story (gaming, grant/charitable fund flows, healthcare, etc.) In an effort to respond to these reporting efforts, the Gulf Coast Business Council is gathering relevant statistics, anecdotal evidence, and other illustrations of the positive economic and social recovery and renaissance that is occurring in our region. While we will promote the progress, we will also be truthful about the obstacles and challenges which remain."
The story on the council's report is outlined in a Sun Herald newspaper story titled: "Keeping it Positive, Snapshot of Progress Shows We Have Come Far." The story is not a truly objective piece of reporting, but shows how strongly the newspaper is influenced by the council. The story is directly reflective of the Sanderson's requests to its members for positive information regarding the recovery. The council's report does note that there are problems with the recovery. The Sun Herald reports:
"Some of the high points:
• Annual retail sales in the three Coast counties have increased 61 percent since 2004 and are projected to top $8.4 billion this year.
• FEMA trailers and mobile homes have decreased by more than 60 percent, from over 43,000 to less than 16,000 today.
• More than 18,000 employees are back at work in the gaming industry, exceeding 2005 levels of 17,000.
Some of the low points:
• Unaffordable and unavailable insurance for residents and business owners continues to inhibit economic growth and housing starts for the workforce.
• 43 percent of obligated FEMA funds have been disbursed for repairs and rebuilding to water/sewer, hospitals, schools and public buildings.
• Hospitals are having some difficulty in recruiting and retaining nurses and other ancillary personnel due to the national shortage and worsened by the conditions here.
In the Sun Herald story, the council's director Brian Sanderson says,
"I think there was a need to remind ourselves how far we have come as a community," Sanderson said. "And to see where we still need to go. Secondarily, I think it was to show the rest of the nation and the world how far we've come. New Orleans receives so much attention, we wanted to be ready if asked (to show that) we have come back in so many ways bigger and better."
Since many of the council's members are heads of businesses, political leaders, and movers and shakers on the Coast, news reporters unfamiliar with the area will have difficulty getting assessments on the Coast's recovery that don't reflect the party line from individuals who belong to the council and are among those likely to be interviewed. While there are notable successes with the recovery, the council tends to take credit for the progress of elected public officials, and down plays why there has been a lack of progress in the recovery on so many fronts.
In a letter to members issued this week, Sanderson said,
"As a member of the Gulf Coast Business Council, please find attached our report released today, The Mississippi Gulf Coast – Two Years After Katrina. The report is based on the tremendous response you gave to the call for current data and information. While the report is not an exhaustive list of the good things and remaining challenges facing our area, it is a concise, fair illustration of the tremendous progress and remaining obstacles at the two year mark.
I encourage you to become familiar with these bullet points and use them to respond to any media inquiries over the next week. I have already received a call this morning from NBC Nightly News which will be here later in the week reporting on the gaming industry’s recovery."
The Gulf Coast Business Council is not a normal chamber of commerce, and is not affiliated with a governing agency. It is a private organization funded by member dues. Its offices are currently located in the Harrah's building on Seaway Road in Gulfport. GCN has asked for a list of its members, but told that the list is proprietary. However, GCN has obtained a partial list containing many of the group's members. The council has 152 members, including 32 ad hoc members that mostly represent Coast elected officials. Membership dues for individuals vary and are pricy. GCN has learned dues range from $1,000 to $1,500 a quarter per year, however the amount could be higher for some.
Several elected officials have told GCN that they see the council as a negative for the Coast as it is wielding political influence behind the scenes that it should not have and there is no offsetting public organization. Concerns also are expressed that the council's activities do not always represent the interests of the public, but of its members, who have much to gain in directing public policy.
The council was formed to do just that, control the political process behind the scenes. Bryan Sanderson, the council's director in a previous GCN interview, describes the council as seeking to "direct public policy." But the council has not registered as a lobbying group with the state even though its activities are often described as "lobbying" by reporters in the news media that are members of the council.
One member of the council told GCN that he does not feel that all of the members have a voice in its operation, as it is primarily directed by a handful of people.
The fact that its membership includes executives with both the Sun Herald newspaper and WLOX, means the council has unique access to the Coast's major news media. In fact, news stories by those media rarely mention the affiliation and often cast the council as some form of official quasi public agency. Reports also describe the council in a very favorable light , which gives gives the council credibility before the public. The council's access to public officials, including those at the state level and the Governor, is well established in its own public reports.
Some of the council's activities are clearly in support of developments and improvements, but public access to the council is not part of its work. Meetings are not open to the public, nor to the media in general. It's minutes are private to its members and the council's objectives and funds are not open to public examination or question. The Gulf Coast Business Council is not a public governing agency, though it clearly seeks to act as one.
Among its chief members are George Schloegel, president of Hancock Bank, Anthony Topazi, president of Mississippi Power, attorney Ron Peresich with the Biloxi lawfirm Page, Mannino and Peresich, Gene Warr, Gulfport Businessman and father of Gulfport's Mayor Brent Warr, and Jerry St. Pe, the director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
Many of the members of the group also belonged to the group's predecessor, Coast 21, which promoted metro government. Metro government supporters would like to combine all of the Harrison County's cities into one government. Metro government supporters have long sought to to gain access to Biloxi's casino and tourism revenues, especially in benefit of Gulfport, and to diffuse the voting influence of local residents. While metro government has not been an announced goal of the the Gulf Coast Business Council, its activities are suggestive that metro government remains an objective. The council's political influence is strong enough that it can affectively decide a political candidate's future and control elections.
One public official, who did not want his name published, told GCN that the council, "is not good for the Coast," and that it has "too much influence." He felt that it also interferes with the work of other agencies such as the regular chamber of commerce and the Harrison County Development Commission.
As the Coast's traditional news media are compromised on reporting on the Gulf Coast Business Council, the public is not fully aware of the council's activities and objectives and are outside of the public meeting process at city councils and Board of Supervisor's meetings in Harrison County.
Revealing the Invisible Government - GCN Special Report
Workers need more employers to help put roofs over their heads (references the Gulf Coast Business Council) -Sun Herald Editorial 8/22/07