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Preparations made to avoid last year

Black Springbreak activities raise concerns on Coast

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — The estimated $600,000 cost for extra public services needed during Black Springbreak activities on the Coast was only one consideration. Businesses were also concerned not only with losses caused by traffic problems that made it difficult for customers to reach them, but also the impact of the spring break activities on the upcoming vote on changing the Mississippi state flag.

Some businesses closed, and others reduced their operating hours. Plans were made far in advance of the event to attempt to have less disruption than was seen during the first Black Springbreak event in 2000 which caught local people by surprise when an estimated 30,000 black students descended on the Coast.

The resulting traffic gridlock meant it took hours to drive a few miles along Highway 90 along the beach. Some employees weren’t able to get to work, and many customers weren’t able to reach casinos and other businesses. The two casinos most impacted by the travel problems were those in west Biloxi, President’s Casino and Treasure Bay.

“I think all the businesses down here took a big hit last year,” said Bernie Burkhalter, general manager, Treasure Bay Casino. “We feel like we are probably going to take a pretty big hit this year, but we are better prepared for it as far as crowd control. The problem is lack of easy access to and from the casino because of the traffic gridlock.”

Burkhalter said he was trying to be optimistic that better planning would mitigate the impact from the spring break 2001 activities. But even prior to the event the casino had indications that a lot of their customers would give Treasure Bay a pass that weekend. Several out-of-town groups cancelled trips that were planned. Treasure Bay was anticipating that business would be off by 50%.

Some of the beachfront casinos were reserving hotel rooms for employees to allow them to stay on the property during the weekend, avoiding traffic problems from commuting.

Harry B. Joachim, executive director of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce, said that prior to Black Springbreak 2001 held April 6-8 the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce had received e-mails, phone calls and letters from potential visitors to the Coast who wanted to know when Black Springbreak was so they could avoid the Coast that weekend. Joachim said some of the people making inquiries were likely to visit another time, but others could end up not coming at all if other dates were not convenient.

A lot of business owners concerned about safety issues hired extra security and put up barricades. That included Edgewater Mall, whose parking lot in 2000 was taken over by large groups of rowdy, partying students. This year the mall parking lot was the staging area for law enforcement officers. Extra law enforcement was brought in to handle the crowds, and the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department warned early on that illegal activities common at Black Springbreak 2000 such as nudity, underage drinking and riding in back of pickup trucks would not be tolerated.

Efforts were also made to prevent the appearance of being racist in response to the spring break activities. Joachim said many businesses took a positive approach by being a source of information for Black Springbreak attendees. A group called Focus headed by district attorney Cono Caranna helped distribute flyers that said the students are welcome.

“The flyer says, ‘Come here and have a good time, but don’t be hanging out of cars and respect other people’s property,’” Joachim said. “It was written in a way not to offend. It communicates that we want the students to be here and have a good time, but also operate in a safe and responsible manner. I think that the message is any visitor here is welcome as long as they are law abiding. That is a good message, period.”

Coast officials also hired a marketing firm to help provide reports to the news media regarding the spring break activities. The $15,000 cost was split between the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi.

Joachim said spring break students of any race generally aren’t big spenders. By and large they aren’t old enough to drink or gamble, and don’t spend much money with local merchants.

“Primarily they buy gasoline and food,” Joachim said. “They don’t take up a lot of hotel rooms. They’ll sleep in cars, on the beach or several to a room. It is not a big spending event for the Gulf Coast. It is a low-dollar event.”

Friday at noon a traffic plan went into place on Highway 90 restricting traffic to only two lanes of the four-lane highway, leaving the other two lanes free for emergency traffic. Barricades were put in place to prevent traffic from going up most side streets off Highway 90.

Joachim said that while a lot was learned from 2000 that was put into place in 2001, the sheer numbers of visitors made it difficult to cope.

“We probably aren’t in the position to handle crowds of 30,000-plus,” he said. “We couldn’t handle 30,000 Democrats, 30,000 Republicans or 30,000 doctors here at one time. It is just an overload on the system.”

Joachim said the Coast faces similar issues each year with the big Harley Memorial Day Blowout. Until 2000 the sheriff’s department had a “hands off” approach to some illegal activities like nudity at the Blowout, which raises a large amount of money for charity. But in 2000 the sheriff’s department cracked down, and many bikers were angry as a result.

“Bikers didn’t like the crackdown, and have threatened not to return,” Joachim said. “Maybe that’s not a bad thing.”

Chevis Swetman, chairman of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of People’s Bank, said the greatest long-term concern about the Springbreak activities was the impact on the flag vote. The chamber has endorsed the new state flag as being positive for business. But there were concerns a backlash from Black Springbreak could cause a detrimental effect on the flag vote.

“I think the business community experience on Black Springbreak was not very good,” Swetman said. “The issue here, white spring break or Black Springbreak, I don’t favor either one. From a business perspective, my greatest concern is that the Coast Chamber has endorsed the referendum to adopt a new state flag. You are going to have Black Springbreak and then nine days later vote on the flag. It could easily have a detrimental effect on the flag vote. That would be a shame. My concern is those who would vote to change the flag or who are undecided might be influenced.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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