Mississippi Gulf Coast towns are struggling to revive their downtowns into the thriving business centers that they once were. A combination of innovative ideas and federal dollars is making that hope a closer reality.
“The trend started around the time of the bicentennial,” said Kenan Cowling, Project Manager for Main Street Biloxi. Until that time, developers were looking mostly to the suburbs. Shopping malls became more popular and anchor stores moved out of downtowns.
However, American downtowns still had a lot of support for several reasons. The banking and finance industry resisted the move to suburban headquarters, preferring instead to stay downtown. During the oil shortages of the 1970s, workers were interested in shortening their commute and made more use of public transportation. Restoring downtowns also made good sense from an ecological standpoint, because it preserved existing buildings instead of converting “green space” into parking lots and buildings. Equally important, around this time federal money for restoration efforts became more available.
The effort to improve Biloxi`s downtown has apparently paid off, as measured by price of retail space.
“The price of downtown prime commercial retail space has increased 100% in the last year, but is still a bargain,” Cowling said. “Market force will bring more retail businesses in.”
With casinos like the soon-to-open Beau Rivage nearby, Cowling said he expects more people to be coming through downtown Biloxi.
In Gulfport, a newly-organized Downtown Association found interesting facts when they began a survey of the buildings in 42 blocks of downtown.
“There is a perception that a lot of buildings downtown are vacant,” said Theresa Spier, owner of Coast Books.
However, only 10% of 270 buildings are vacant. Retail businesses occupy most of the buildings, and those are primarily speciality shops. The survey also noted that almost 80% of the buildings are owner-occupied. The survey will become part of the application the Gulfport Downtown Association plans to make to join the Mississippi Main Street Program.
The Gulfport Downtown Association is not waiting to begin work. Already the group has spearheaded an effort to clean up the downtown area. Working with the City of Gulfport, the members arranged to have more trash receptacles placed downtown. Metal racks and large metal bins were provided for trash disposal by businesses, instead of plastic bags being left in downtown alleys for sanitation pickup, as had previously been the case.
The association believes that renovations and development will continue to change Gulfport`s downtown.
“As soon as the federal courthouse location is announced, office space will fill up,” Spier said. She said that downtown Gulfport will eventually have 20 to 25% of its space in retail businesses. “We have a small, but growing retail business community.”
The rest will be professional offices and some residential space, especially in the upper floors of existing buildings. This is a very important development, according to Spier.
“When people live downtown, other services come.” There is currently no grocery store located in downtown Gulfport. “I`d love to see a decent one move in here,” Spier said. “We need a really nice restaurant downtown, too.”
One obstacle is parking. The Gulfport Downtown Association, along with Main Street Biloxi, has endorsed a “park and ride” program. The Gulf Regional Planning Commission and Coast Transit Authority have helped both groups formalize the plan, which is currently seeking federal funds for studies in support of the plan.
Spier believes that if there is an efficient, very regular service up and down U.S. 90 and throughout the downtown area, people wouldn`t mind leaving their cars at a central location and using public transportation to move around.
In the meantime, some parking areas in downtown Gulfport will change from all-day parking to two-hour parking to encourage turnover in front of retail businesses.
“Parking will always be an issue,” Spier said.
Another incentive to revitalization: renovating an older building can qualify for a tax credit. And Mississippi leads the nation in the number of people qualifying for tax credits for their restoration efforts.
Buildings don`t have to be on the National Register of Historical Places, but it helps. If a building is – or contributes to a nearby National Historic District – it may be worth up to 20% in tax credits on the income received from the property. Other buildings can quality for up to 10% in tax credits.
Renovations can be difficult. Rules and regulations may require that the building be restored to its original appearance. Local ordinances are certain to require that buildings be brought up to fire and safety codes, no small task in a building that has wiring from the dawn of the electrical age.
Changes in restoration technology have helped fuel the movement. For instance, Cowling pointed out that new polymers can mimic the look of plaster, making it economically feasible to renovate.
There may be no stopping the restoration of downtowns.
“We want to preserve what`s here,” Cowling said.