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Secretive Gulf Coast Business Council Holds Annual Meeting

by Keith Burton - GCN 6/25/08 Updated 6/27/08

The members of the Gulf Coast Business Council, a largely secretive group that receives little press coverage, held their annual meeting Tuesday night at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi.

The council is a private organization made up of some coast area business leaders and individuals that seeks to "guide public policy." The council is a by-invitation-only organization and operates somewhat like a quasi chamber of commerce, but its work is done behind the scenes. Elected officials from the three Coast counties are members too but cannot vote. The council does, however, wield considerable influence over issues and lobbies extensively behind the scenes before political groups and politicians from the local to state level. The council, though, is not a registered lobbying group though that is what it does.

Currently, the council has 183 full time members, 15 ex-officio members, 28 partnership members and 5 regional stewards for a total of 232 members.

Among the council's activities is management of the Renaissance Corporation. The Renaissance Corporation is a separate, not-for-profit private corporation designed to create and implement a broad-based approach to land acquisition and development and redevelopment of single-family and multi-family housing units on the Coast, with a particular emphasis on work-force housing.

Not much as happened this past year regarding housing by the group but they soon plan a big public relations campaign. The Renaissance Corporation received a $40 million grant from the state's Katrina recovery money for the REACH program. The REACH program is an employers' assisted housing program that is envisioned to help employees that need housing to get financial assistance from their employers. For more than a year the program has been undergoing planning and soon, a massive media campaign will be initiated to educate employers and employees on the details of the program, but so far, nearly three years after Katrina destroyed tens of thousands of homes, only one resident has received assistance and that is part of a test of the program.

The Gulf Coast Business Council is also closely associated with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a separate not-for-profit organization that is receiving money for Katrina recovery programs and disseminates funds to other non-profit groups. The Gulf Coast Business Council, the Renaissance Corporation and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation are all based in the former Harrah's building on Seaway Road in Gulfport, which was purchased by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation with donated funds and money from the Governor's Katrina Fund.

Both the Sun Herald and WLOX TV have members on the Gulf Coast Business Council, but typically those media are silent on the council's activities unless the council wishes to promote something. As to whether the media campaign will be offered for free by the paper and television station is not clear.

Some very familiar names are involved in the council, Mississippi Power's Anthony Topazi, George Schloegel with Hancock Bank and Gulfport's Mayor Brent Warr are among the group's key players and the council has a close ear to the Mississippi Development Authority.

Some local politicians quietly tell GCN that they fear the council's influence as its members can influence the outcome of elections. They also say that the council often takes credit for the work of government and elected officials, even though the council is not a government entity but a private organization. The council's activities seem largely directed toward the establishment of a type of metro government that is outside of the normal political process guided by voters. The council's meetings are not open to the public and are not covered by the news media.

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