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Barksdale Heads Home to Help

Friday, August 29, 2005, a terse message from the National Hurricane Center said it all: HURRICANE KATRINA ... DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED ... MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS ... PERHAPS LONGER ... POWER OUTAGES ... FOR WEEKS ...


Unfortunately, the Hurricane Center people were right on.

According to news reports, along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina brought with her a 30-foot storm surge wiping out 90 percent of buildings along the Biloxi coastline.

Casino barges in the Biloxi-Gulfport area were washed ashore and across a beachfront highway. Many residents had to be rescued from rooftops.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour inspected the damage along the coast as soon as it was safe to do so. He was overwhelmed by what he saw, calling the storm damage "indescribable."

"I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago," Barbour said.

Very soon after the hurricane, Barbour announced the formation of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and charged the Commission members with developing "a broad vision for a better Gulf Coast and South Mississippi."

To head the commission, the governor selected Jackson resident and Mississippi native son Jim Barksdale, 62.

Barksdale's selection was widely applauded among people who knew him -- friends, colleagues and former colleagues -- and people who knew of him. In a recent interview, Jim Barksdale told New Towns one reason he was chosen to head the Commission was that he had no vested interests in the Gulf Coast.

"I was the largest supporter of [Governor Barbour's] opponent in the last election," Barksdale said with a chuckle. Barksdale outlined the mission the governor asked him (and the colleagues he would gather to work with him) to perform.

"The Governor's Commission focuses on giving local leaders access to ideas and information that will help them decide what their region will look like five, 10, even 20 or 30 years from now," he explained.

Barksdale emphasized that the Commission was strictly advisory in nature, and final decisions on implementation will almost exclusively be made by local officials and private investors, not by the state or federal governments.

Leland Speed, current executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, agreed that Barksdale was a superb choice for an enormous task.

"Jim has had a number of key positions and demonstrated tremendous management skill from the very beginning of his career," Speed said. Barksdale has a B.A. in business from the University of Mississippi. He has worked for Federal Express Corporation, Cook Industries and IBM, and served as chief executive officer at AT&T Wireless Services. From January 1995 until the company merged with America Online in March 1999, he was president and CEO of Netscape Communications Corp.

Barksdale is partner and co-founder of The Barksdale Group, an investment and advisory group committed exclusively to growing companies in internet services.

In an article on the Commission's progress published in the St. Petersburg Times on November 13, 2005, staff writer Kris Hundley described Barksdale as a "retired corporate superstar."

Perhaps the most important knowledge Barksdale brought to the huge task of laying groundwork for Mississippi's future, said Speed, was the understanding that if this effort were to be successful, "everybody has to be involved."

Speed talked also about the widespread recognition and respect Barksdale has earned as a tremendous humanitarian. Barksdale's generosity, kindness and concern for the most burdened people among us is a source of pride among fellow Mississippians. In a recent national business magazine piece, Barksdale is ranked high as a giver among the nation's top philanthropists and high on a list of philanthropists' donations as a percent of income.

Since 1999, Jim Barksdale has been president and CEO of the Barksdale Management Corporation, a philanthropic investment institution that helped fund the Governor's Commission.

In January 2000, Barksdale and his late wife, Sally, gave $100 million to the state of Mississippi to create The Barksdale Reading Institute at the University of Mississippi. The goal of the program: to teach the children of Mississippi how to read.

Brian Sanderson was an attorney in private practice before the storm. He was appointed general counsel to the Commission, and in fact, authored much of the final report. He was happy he had the opportunity to work with Barksdale. "Growing up in Mississippi, growing up knowing who he was," gave Sanderson an even stronger drive to become involved working with the man he had heard so many things about over the years.

"Barksdale is a great Mississippian," Sanderson said in an interview with this paper. "Barksdale is a great American.

"I cannot express enough the commitment he brought to the Commission's work."

Operations of the Governor's Commission were funded by private donations: $1 million each from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and from Barksdale's philanthropic enterprise. No government money was used and money was not solicited, Barksdale emphasized.

Eventually comprised of 20 committees staffed mostly by volunteers, the Governor's Commission was dissolved after rendering a final report by its deadline at the end of December 2005. However, according to Barksdale, some committees, like housing and other programs to relieve human suffering, could not wait even the few weeks before the end of 2005 before passing recommendations and suggestions for implementation into badly-hit communities.

One such priority was education -- an area of particular interest to Jim Barksdale. Simply put, the children could not afford to wait to return to school. Further delay would only result in more damage to the children's education than had already occurred.

"The schools were either destroyed or not habitable," Barksdale told New Towns. "All of the local school districts are now operational. All the children have been assigned to a school; 90 percent of all children are back in school."

Barksdale repeated several times how impressed -- and touched -- he was by the outpouring of help and the terrific work was done by everyone involved.

Barksdale was also enthusiastic about the land use, planning, design, infrastructure and other work accomplished in a week-long Mississippi Renewal Forum held in Biloxi on October 12 - 17, to bring together the issues to be addressed in planning and redevelopment, infrastructures and much more that is woven into the life in the area. The effort was spearheaded, on the professional side, by members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), led by Andrés Duany.

At this gathering, and other subsequent gatherings, volunteer architects, planners and a myriad of experts in other fields gathered to come up with suggested plans for 11 of the hardest-hit municipalities.

During that October week, volunteers roomed in a flooded out casino/hotel. It was no pleasure palace. New Towns editor and publisher Diane Dorney, described the scene: "It was like being on the moon -- everything, for miles and miles, was wiped out."

Charrette team members ate cafeteria style with FEMA workers and construction crews.

The plans, designs and alternatives of the Forum were included in both a collection of reports to the governor from the group and in the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal's final report.

The Forum was an unprecedented, truly historic, intensive collaboration between local officials, community leaders and community planners from around Mississippi and the country. Hundreds of volunteer experts, representing a wide range of technical specialties, put their heads together during hands-on workshops and on-site visits over the six days.

"The Forum is just the first step, albeit an important and ambitious one, in the planning process," said Chairman Barksdale in a statement at the Forum.

Among the outcomes of the Forum were themes and ideas that reflect what citizens cherish most about their individual coastal communities, about the region's architectural traditions, and about their hopes for the future in a set of ambitious design alternatives for consideration in the cities along the Gulf Coast.

A week after it began, some of the new urbanists presented to Chairman Barksdale and Governor Barbour their preliminary proposals in the form of detailed plans for 11 cities and towns along the coast

During the last three days of November, the new urbanists were back on the Gulf Coast. Once again there were long days of work -- including workshops and five town hall meetings on each of two consecutive nights.

Barksdale told New Towns that an enormous number of volunteer professionals and citizens participated throughout the Forum/charrette process. He said 500 professionals put in 50,000 man-hours; actual presentations and contact were made with 10,000 citizens, including mayors and other local officials.

"It was a wonderful outpouring of fine ideas," said Barksdale.

Barksdale also noted some recent dissension among design professionals -- some from naysayers about new urbanism. Barksdale said, like many others, he was a newcomer to the universe of town planning and design. "I read [Duany's] book, 'Suburban Nation,' [authored by Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, published in March 2000]."

He takes a bit of dissension in stride and told New Towns that things would work out, adding, "City planning is not my field. But I have learned a lot."

Brian Sanderson, who recently accepted an appointment as deputy director to the newly-created Mississippi Office of Long-term Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, was most moved by Barksdale's great humanity and compassion. "The poor, the ones who did not have anything came first," said Sanderson.

From the other side of the looking glass, throughout the New Towns interview, Barksdale made several references to the sacrifices made by citizens, experts and volunteers. "I've never seen people working so hard to reach out and help others," he said. "It's taught me a lesson."

And no doubt, Jim Barksdale, a giving, caring man, has taught them a lesson too.