Along Mississippi's devastated Gulf Coast, it's the worst of times and it's the best of times, according to Jim Barksdale, a native son, philanthropist, and former Netscape CEO. Mr. Barksdale has been tapped to lead the state's efforts to rebuild thousands of homes, businesses, schools, and roads. When Mr. Barksdale surveys miles of Hurricane Katrina rubble and destruction in Mississippi, he doesn't just see obliteration-he also sees opportunity: "We've got the cleanest slate we're ever going to have."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour agrees and has named Mr. Barksdale chairman of the governor's commission on recovery, rebuilding, and renewal, a panel that aims to usher in a state "renaissance," according to the governor: "If we build the Coast and South Mississippi back just the way it was before, we will have failed."
In an air-conditioned tent outside Prime Outlet Mall in Gulfport, Miss., late last month, President Bush joined the governor, Mr. Barksdale, and nearly 200 city, county, and state leaders for the commission's first meeting. The governor has stacked the commission with some of the state's most respected leaders, including the president of the University of Mississippi, the CEO of Sanderson Farms, the chairman of the state's gaming commission, and a former Mississippi governor.
Mr. Barksdale, who is volunteering full-time attention to the commission, has a history of generously helping his home state. In 2000, he and his wife, Sally, donated $100 million to the University of Mississippi to create a statewide center for literacy. In August, Mr. Barksdale promised to donate $5 million over five years to help improve five public schools in Jackson.
Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Mr. Barksdale, a Jackson resident, helped Gov. Barbour and other state leaders establish the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Fund, a nonprofit relief organization for hurricane victims. Days later the successful Netscape exec, also former CEO of AT&T and COO of FedEx, was putting his business expertise to work devising strategies for short-term recovery and long-term renewal in Mississippi.
Mr. Barksdale thinks one of the best strategies local leaders can adopt is identifying the region's strengths and building on them. "We don't need to be something we're not," he told WORLD. "Let's figure out what we're good at and get even better." Mr. Barksdale leads the effort to help Mississippi's biggest industries-shipyards, tourism, and forestry-get back on their feet, attract new workers, and improve management.
Mr. Barksdale also says this is the time for local leaders to confront "core issues" like poverty in the nation's poorest state per capita. "You can't effectively rebuild and renew without addressing poverty," he says, adding that the commission will make recommendations about improving education, job opportunities, and housing arrangements for low-income families.
That kind of recovery and renewal will require public and private sectors working together, according to Mr. Barksdale, who commends the government's reaction to Katrina, saying "they got here while the wind was still blowing." While the government helps remove debris, restore water services, and rebuild roads, Mr. Barksdale says faith-based groups and nongovernment organizations also need to continue to help needy people with the everyday demands of rebuilding their lives.
The commission will make recommendations to local leaders, but Mr. Barksdale emphasizes it's up to local officials and citizens to decide how they want to rebuild and reshape their communities. President Bush seems to agree and told local leaders at the Gulfport meeting that they need to "develop a blueprint for your own future." Mr. Barksdale also assured local leaders that the commission is there as a guide, not an authority: "You're like the pig at a ham and egg breakfast-you're committed. I'm like the chicken who lays the eggs-I'm just involved."
In the long months ahead, Mr. Barksdale says the final decisions should be left to the locals, and that the most important question for Gulf Coasters is: "What do they want their community to be?"