Secretive but Influential Gulf Coast Business Council Two
by Keith Burton - GCN 7/27/08
The Gulf Coast Business Council, formerly Coast 21, recently marked their two year anniversary.
The council is a not-for-profit private organization made up of some Coast businessmen, attorneys and accountants that seeks to guide public policy. The council is not a division of the chamber of commerce and has no official affiliation with local governments, though the council members do heavily lobby public officials and has public officials as non-voting ex-officio members.
The organization has maneuvered itself to work largely behind the scenes in the Hurricane Katrina recovery focusing on workforce housing, public policy issues, insurance reform and more. It does, however, heavily lobby and influence public officials and has direct access to the Coast's major news media as key managers of WLOX and the Sun Herald are members of the organization. Membership with the council is by invitation only and the group's meetings are not open to the public or media.
In a WLOX news report recently, the council's executive director noted its work.
"I think what we've learned since Katrina is that partnerships, collaborations and working together for a common vision is more important than ever," says Brian Sanderson, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Business Council.
The GCBC is well-known to be lobbying lawmakers.
"One of the most important things is their lobbying for a better solution to lower our insurance rates. That's certainly important," says Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran in the WLOX report. The council, however, is not a registered lobbying organization with the state.
The council has close relationships with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and its subsidiary non-profit, the Renaissance Corporation, which is receiving millions of dollars in federal money from the MDA for the Reach program. The Reach program is an employer-assistance housing program that seeks to help coast workers find homes they can afford by providing housing assistance loans or grants. While housing is a critical issue on the Coast, nearly three years out from Katrina, the Reach program is still trying to get off the ground.
The council is also connected to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, another non-profit, non-governmental group, that has been established to distribute millions of dollars in Katrina recovery funds. While these groups appear to be independent, many of their board members also serve on the board of the GCBC.
The GCBC is headquartered in the Knight Non-Profit Center on Seaway Road, which was purchased by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation late last year, but is actually administered by another non-profit corporation connected to the GCBC.
"We're proud of the Knight non-profit center that we have under renovation. We have raised seven million dollars of private funds to purchase and to renovate a building for dozens of non-profits to occupy," said Gulf Coast Business Council Chairman Anthony Topazi in the WLOX report. Topazi is an employee of the Southern Company, a regulated monopoly.
GCN reported last November that the GCBC doesn't technically own the building, but it might as well. Rodger Wilder, president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation told GCN in an interview in November that "The Gulf Coast Business Council will not be the title holder of the building."
Typically, the local major news media describes the work of the GCBC in glowing terms.
Critics of the group say the council take credit for work of public officials and that its political influence behind the scenes is so great that it can influence elections and even who runs for office on the Coast. Additionally, as these non-profit groups are not pubic agencies, media oversight and government accountability is restricted, even though they are receiving public funds and influencing public and governmental activities.
The web of influence by the Gulf Coast Business Council, and some of its members, continues to grow.