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Hancock chamber snares $50,000 grant for ‘smart growth’

BAY ST. LOUIS – The Hancock County Chamber of Commerce now has a growth management specialist on board to help prepare a “smart growth” initiative that has been funded with a $50,000 grant from a regional community development organization.

“We want folks to be thinking a little differently about how they build and develop,” said Sue Chamberlain, who was recently hired as the chamber’s growth management specialist. “There is also new information that is coming out daily that begins to define areas that are suitable for development, and other areas that are not suitable for development. This is helpful making decisions about the types of development we have, and where it is done.”

Chamber of commerce executive director Amy Gregory said with both the county and the chamber growing at phenomenal rates, the “smart growth” grant will help the chamber to ensure a balance between economic growth and the quality of life in Hancock County.

“We want growth, economic development, more businesses and more people,” Gregory said. “But we have to preserve our green spaces and the beautiful things that make Hancock County so wonderful. Balance is the key word. Smart growth isn’t a new concept. Everyone is struggling with balancing development and environmental preservation.”

Hancock County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Mississippi. The population of Hancock County has grown by about 30% in the 1990s. And the chamber is seeing a corresponding increase, with membership increasing by a third in the past year. Gregory said the grant will also help the chamber with its growing pains.

“We didn’t have enough phones, desks or computers to add the staff we needed,” Gregory said. “This grant will help bring our Hancock Chamber into the 21st century with additional staff and equipment that will help us implement our Vision 2000 goals. It is going to be exciting to see this develop.”

The grant was funded through the Gulf of Mexico Program, a project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies located at Stennis Space Center.

The “smart growth” initiative was an outgrowth of two chamber projects, Vision 2000 and the Gateway Enhancement Project. Seventeen Hancock County residents met in the spring and summer of this year to define a vision for the future. Goals developed include preserving the area’s culture, enhancing natural resources and green spaces, enacting uniform sign and building ordinances and developing uniform gateways and intersections.

The Vision 2000 team visited the cities of Fairhope, Ala., and Madison, two cities that have won praise for maintaining a strong sense of place and economic sustainability in the face of growth.

“Fairhope has been so instrumental in their beautification efforts,” Chamberlain said. “In Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler said the steps they took were mostly regulatory. The chamber can’t be regulatory, but it can look to develop and define incentives to encourage smart growth. Hawkins-Butler said during her term property values have increased 15%. That tells her that is something that is an economic incentive for smart growth.”

Chamberlain said smart growth can mean things like not continuing to rebuild in areas prone to flooding. And, to prevent flooding problems, filter and buffer strips can be considered along with more landscaping in parking lots to absorb stormwater. The chamber will also look at issues such as wind damage from hurricanes. For example, large signs generally are more vulnerable to high winds than small signs, so there might be incentives to look at smaller signs.

Chamberlain said a lot of the current discussion had its roots in a project by Tulane University architecture students who did a project envisioning a more attractive gateway to Bay St. Louis and Waveland. The community responded favorably, and the chamber developed a goal to make the community’s sense of place reflected in its gateways.

“We want to make sure the gateway to the community has as much character as the cities and the county,” Chamberlain said. “Hancock County is a beautiful county. It is so green. It has a lot of natural feature such as rivers, wetlands and bayous that can’t be replicated, and it has a diversity of different kinds of environments. Then you look at the two cities, and they have so much character. I think the community and business leaders looked up and said, ‘Does the Highway 90 and the 603 corridor reflect the character of the county? How can we make it more reflective of our sense of place?’”

The American Planning Association indicates that “visual clutter” along commercial corridors leaves people with an impression that the community does not care about its appearance.

The intent of the overall smart growth initiative is to preserve what makes the community so unique, including its water-oriented environment, while retaining the historical and cultural character of the community.

Chamberlain said they don’t have all the answers yet as Vision 2000 is still a work in progress.

“The intent is to set priorities, make partnerships and use resources available to the best possible advantage,” she said.

Progress has been made on improving wastewater treatment in Hancock County with hundreds of homes on failing septic tanks being provided with central wastewater collection and treatment.

“It is a real pat on the back for the community to get so much support from different sectors to move forward on sewer improvements,” Chamberlain said. “It shows people do have an awareness of water quality issues. They have made great strides in improving wastewater treatment in Hancock County.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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