by Brian Lamar
When many business-minded Coastal Mississippians think of titans of industry in the Gulfport area, the name Jonathan Daniels may come to mind.
Daniels, who stepped into his role as the executive director of the Port of Gulfport in 2013, has rallied success and acclaim by adding long-term stability with legacy tenant leases with Dole, Chiquita and Crowley while managing more than $500 million in expansion simultaneously.
This success has challenged the perceived conventional wisdom of Daniels’ colleagues who warned him not to take the director position in Gulfport because they believed that he couldn’t be successful in Mississippi.
“I was warned not to take this position by several people. They said if you go there, it will be a career killer,” Daniels said.
Many leaders in the national port industry viewed the obstacles Daniels faced with fear, but not Daniels. He took them on as complex but gratifying challenges, which soon began to turn into feathers in his cap of accomplishments that seemed impossible to others.
“When I came down here. I came down here understanding what I was getting into. We needed to go beyond a project that had potential to a project that was complete” said Daniels.
Many elements of adversity were stacked against Daniels from the onset of the job like large ports in Mobile and New Orleans to the East and West that could easily draw business away from Mississippi.
One intangible hurdle was a perceived negative image of Mississippi’s culture and society.
“I had some help. I built on my predecessor’s hard work and legacy of accomplishments for the State of Mississippi. I have an outstanding team of professionals who work tirelessly to make sure the service our port provides is top notch. We have a network of economic drivers like our military complex and our strong tourism, gaming and hospitality industry. I utilized the resources already in place like the solid transportation core here including the deep water off the coast, rail lines running North, South East and West an interstate that connects to large populations areas within an hour each way, a robust airport that we have a great relationship with,” Daniels explained. “It has been teamwork from the beginning with a network of helpful factors,” he added.
The port, which is considered by state and local leaders as a powerhouse economic development engine continues to thrive through the years facing challenges like our current COVID-19 scare, a brief disruption of the Chiquita operations and more. Daniels’ strategic vision was to build an array of tenant operations that would sustain the unforeseen issues that may arise. Luckily for Mississippi, Daniels vision held water.
One example of using a crisis to Mississippi’s advantage came to fruition when cruise ships across the globe were forced to find safe harbor in ports. Four cruise ships used The Port of Gulfport as a diversion point, which proves that cruise ships are a viable tenant.
“We can’t be afraid to have a strong vision that steps outside our traditional bounds. We have not accepted the fact that we can’t complete on a global stage…We aren’t just a banana port. We are an international port of Call that allows us the opportunity to bring in any industry,” said Daniels.
Daniels future job as the Port Everglades will also be fraught with trials where he will inherit a more than $1.5 billion expansion in progress. Some would say he is just the man to get it done.
Daniels admits he will miss many aspects of coastal Mississippi like the food and all the fun community events, but the thing he will miss the most are the people.
“I’ve grown to absolutely love it here. I’ve truly enjoyed being a part of this community. The people are genuinely warm and welcoming. I feel like I am leaving a family,” said Daniels.