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New arrivals flock to idyllic Gulf Coast community

Ocean Springs booms despite — or because of? — lack of dockside gaming

ocean springs — From the beach in Ocean Springs you can look across the water at the neon lights and towering hotels of Biloxi’s Casino Row. To outside visitors, it is puzzling that casinos are densely concentrated on one side of Biloxi’s Back Bay, and yet there are none on the other side in Ocean Springs.

Ocean Springs is in Jackson County, the only Coast county that voted against dockside gaming. But this small bedroom community hasn’t suffered economically from the lack of gaming. In fact, the lack of casinos make it a more attractive place to live if current home building activity is any indication.

“Casinos have affected our growth,” said Ocean Springs Mayor Seren Ainsworth. “We attract people because we don’t have gaming.”

In 1997 Ocean Springs had the Coast’s largest increase in new residential construction. Permit values totalled $17.4 million compared to $9.8 million in 1996, an increase of 78%. Contrast that with Biloxi, where residential building permits decreased 46.3% from $21.6 million in 1996 to $11.6 million in 1997.

Part of the reason more homes are being built in the Ocean Springs area is simply that more land is still available for development. Also, the Ocean Springs area has more waterfront property than any other Coast community. Besides property fronting the Biloxi’s Back Bay and the Mississippi Sound, Davis Bayou and Old Fort Bayou provide many miles of waterways through the city.

“I think we have a niche as a bedroom community,” said Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce president Timothy E. Taranto. “We’ve been able to maintain a small town flavor while also seeing some real economic development and growth.”

The city has a reputation for the arts, and draws a large number of visitors each year to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The city’s downtown is occupied with thriving small specialty businesses such as Miner’s Toy Store and Salmagundi Gift Shop. New restaurants such as Bayview Gourmet and the Porter House Restaurant are thriving alongside old favorites like the Tato-Nut Donut Shop.

Gaming across the bridge in Biloxi has affected Ocean Springs in positive and negative ways. Traffic has increased, and the jump in population has placed a strain on schools without the hundreds of thousands in casino revenues that go to Biloxi schools. Prices for homes have increased dramatically, especially for waterfront homes. So when the county did a reappraisal without reducing the millage rates, many Ocean Springs homeowners faced large increases in property taxes.

On the positive side, sales tax revenues have increased dramatically, there are few vacant commercial properties in town, and a number of new hotels have been constructed in the area. A number of new subdivisions are under construction, and the average value of a new home in Ocean Springs is about $130,000.

Currently, 400 lots are under development in Ocean Springs. Lot prices even for non-waterfront land have jumped considerably since the early 1990s. For example, lots at Maurepas Landing near the U.S. Post Office on U.S. 90 are selling for an average of $20,000. Lots in the popular historic district of Ocean Springs go for twice or three times that amount.

“Even the developers are surprised how fast lots are being purchased,” Ainsworth said.

While the economic activity surrounding homebuilding is good, the mayor said it also has its downsides. “Whenever you have more people move in, the city has to provide more services, and it costs money,” he said. “There has to be a balance. We have to find that balance, and sometimes it is difficult.”

A great deal of the new commercial development in Ocean Springs is occurring just north of the city limits across the Old Fort Bayou bridge on Washington Ave./Highway 609. A number of new hotels have been built near Interstate 10, and businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations and retail businesses have sprouted up to take advantage of the heavy traffic. Highway 609 is a major traffic artery bringing in casino visitors.

Ainsworth said he doesn’t know the odds of gaming ever being approved in Jackson County.

“I think there is a segment of population looking at the neighboring county and says, ‘I wish we had the revenue,’” he said. “I think personally in Ocean Springs, it would definitely be defeated. I’m not being critical of Harrison County. They chose gaming, and had a right to do so. And we reap some benefits from economic growth in the area. But I think people in Ocean Springs like it across the bridge. They just don’t want it in their community. They don’t want to see their shoreline dotted with casinos.”


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