Money isn't the only thing needed when a Gulf Coast town coping with the double disasters of a factory closing and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sets out to transform itself into a world class river city. Public Agenda reports on world class determination in Moss Point, Mississippi - where public engagement is helping community leaders create a better future.
You may not have heard of Moss Point, Mississippi - home to about 16,000 people - but chances are, you have heard of its best-known river, the Pascagoula. That's not the only major waterway in town: Moss Point is the place where the Pascagoula and the Escatawpa Rivers come together and with the Gulf Coast just a mile and a half away, the story of Moss Point - like so many others since Hurricane Katrina blew in - is very much about water: a sorrowful tide three years ago but today, the stuff of a hopeful future.
Like most of Mississippi's Gulf communities, Moss Point was deeply affected by Katrina's march ashore on August 29, 2005. Although there was not much direct damage during the hurricane itself, storm waters soon flooded the city, which is virtually surrounded by rivers, bayous and wetlands.
The storm surge devastated the historic downtown and created chaos in many neighborhoods and residences. As the city struggles to rebuild, City Hall is still in a temporary trailer. The police and fire stations also have yet to set up in new permanent offices.
With scarce resources and limited experience in city planning and development, Moss Point's city leaders, many of whom were newly-elected when Katrina hit, were not prepared for the daunting task of rebuilding that followed.
The timing was further complicated by an earlier blow to the local economy: the closing of an 89-year-old paper mill shuttered in 2001 by International Paper, which told its 375 employees the factory could not compete with more modern facilities.
The combined result: a city in strong need of both a new plan for the future, and a new way of getting there, which is where Public Agenda comes into the picture. Literally, on the ground in the community, where we are working with city officials, civic leaders and concerned citizens.
In the aftermath of the storm and flooding, Moss Point's plight came to the attention of state and federal officials and the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a non-profit organization that supports transformative community-driven projects across the globe, launched the Gulf Coast Renewal Project to help Moss Point recover, rebuild, and create a stronger city better able to withstand future challenges.
ISC helped Moss Point public officials develop rebuilding plans, navigate redevelopment projects, and negotiate relationships with state and federal disaster recovery agencies while encouraging leaders to consider ways to effectively engage the community in the recovery and renewal process. Participating in a September 2007 Gulf Funders meeting in New Orleans, Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop and representatives from the ISC invited Public Agenda to provide Moss Point leaders with training and technical assistance in community engagement.
Moss Point is using the devastation of the past few years as an opportunity to redefine itself - a goal defined in a very public way, with a 2020 Vision Statement, new logo and slogan, "Becoming a World Class River City," which won a public relations award in Sept. 2007, a few days after it was adopted. Community leaders envision a well-run, eco- and people-friendly community, evolving from a traditionally industrial economy to one also sustained by eco-tourism based on the waterfront setting and wildlife, including coastal brown pelicans and migratory white pelicans whose visits are part of the marketing for the city's executive retreat and meeting facility, the Pelican Landing Conference Center.
Public Agenda is beginning its work in Moss Point at an important moment, with planning underway on several critical fronts, including housing and downtown redevelopment. Robust community input and involvement at this stage could lead to more informed, equitable and sustainable decisions.
At present, community engagement in Moss Point's planning processes is just getting started. Early in the planning process, city officials and community leaders participated in the workgroup design process known as a "charrette" to help guide the architectural plans for rebuilding and renewal.
Over the past two years, the Mayor and Board of Aldermen have made a number of efforts to inform and involve Moss Point residents in the rebuilding and renewal process, most notably in a historic series of neighborhood outreach meetings held in every city ward to share the outcomes of the charrette process and to solicit feedback on the initial plans for rebuilding Moss Point's downtown and waterfront area.
Even so, many opportunities remain for city leaders to seek more broad-based community input on the important decisions facing the community. Public Agenda's first goal is to help build a capacity among city leaders to effectively involve and engage the community in the planning process. [For more on how to do this in your own community, download Public Agenda's free Primer on Public Engagement and check out the many resources available in our Center for Advances in Public Engagement (CAPE).]
In late July 2008, Public Agenda led a workshop for city officials, business, civic and grassroots leaders on the basic principles of community engagement, and how it relates to the city's planning and reconstruction work.
Combining small group activity and brainstorming with presentation, the training was intended to both inform current reconstruction efforts and deepen leaders' understanding of the power and possibilities for community engagement.
Overall, the roughly 40 participants responded positively to the knowledge brought by Public Agenda, and reported that the session resulted in a broader understanding of the significance of building a relationship with the public/community and agreeing on the importance of public participation as a solid first step towards engagement.
"After the 'storm,' we were flooded with more than water," said one workshop participant. "Experts came from everywhere to solve our problems for us. You were the first to bring an agenda that empowered the average citizen. I thank you for that."
"I really enjoyed the training today, and look forward to taking what I have learned to each and every group I am involved in," said another Moss Pointer. In their evaluations of the project, participants appreciated the fact that heated group discussions took place in an environment that included both concrete steps and guidelines for working out solutions to community problems. Many also said they liked having a clear outline to follow in order to implement their plans, leaving them feeling both prepared and empowered by tangible solutions.
In September, building on the public engagement principals she learned in the training, Donna Joseph, Moss Point Parks and Recreation Director, held a special "Coach's Clinic" for parents, coaches and other volunteers involved in coaching local sports. The meeting enabled them to review current programming and activity schedules offered by the Parks and Recreation Department, and weigh in on the kinds of offerings they wanted to see in the future, including how they'd like to stay involved.
For many of those who attended, it was the first time they had ever been consulted about their views and needs. "We learned," said Joseph, "how we need to engage people on the front side of things, to learn about what they want."
Focus groups were held in 2008 to help us learn more about how average Moss Point residents talk and feel about the city and their neighborhood and find out more about their priorities for redevelopment and the future. This knowledge helped to inform the work of local leaders and deepen their understanding of the importance of that community input. Click here to read their final report.