MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Some of the most significant commercial real estate activity presently on the Gulf Coast is taking place in downtown areas.
“It is interesting as the economy has flattened some nationally, some of our prime development areas are back in the downtown where it all started,” says Steve Dickerson, business development coordinator for the City of Gulfport. “We have a lot of potential activities downtown as well as new store openings. Occupancy rates are clearly up over the past five years. We think things are going very well.”
Like most downtown areas, Gulfport’s downtown declined when malls became popular and most retailers left. Now retailers are coming back, and office demand is strong. One prospect is considering building a large office building downtown, and another is looking at a potential hotel-office complex. A new federal courthouse being built in downtown Gulfport is expected to open in two years.
Restaurants are also popular to serve the large numbers of people who work downtown.
Right now Biloxi’s downtown is predominantly a professional mix including government, legal, financial and medical services offices.
“We encourage the medical service mix because we think it is an affluent segment of our economy,” said Vincent Creel, spokesman for the City of Biloxi. “We have seen a number of conversions of older buildings to medical support. We don’t have a lot of vacancies downtown except on the second floors where we are encouraging loft-style apartments. The downtown is now zoned for apartments, but we haven’t seen anyone take advantage of that yet.”
Because there are people downtown — both those working there and tourists visiting the Ohr O’Keefe Museum of Art, the Mardi Gras Museum and Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant — downtown business leaders feel there is an opportunity for more retail businesses.
“Our downtown folks would like to see more retail,” Creel said. “Specialty retail, in particular, would be very welcome whether it be food, apparel, antiques, jewelry or a newsstand. Recently we had a case where there was a nightclub that wanted to come in, and it was voted down by the planning commission and the city council. Some of the downtown merchants said they had problems with another nightclub. But a restaurant with a bar would probably be welcome.”
Next door to Biloxi in Jackson County the downtown in Ocean Springs continues to see nearly 100% occupancy. When one business leaves, another soon takes its place. For example, Salvetti Brothers Restaurant has moved out, and is being replaced by another Italian restaurant, Al Fresco.
Margaret Miller, executive vice president of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce, said the full occupancy on Washington Avenue, the main street of Ocean Springs, isn’t new. It has been like that for 15 years. But she says what is exciting is that Government Street, a main east-west corridor that starts downtown, wasn’t a prime location for business development 10 years ago. But now it is. There have been a lot of renovations, including some apartments being placed on second floors of buildings.
“We’ve been pleased with the mix of businesses downtown,” Miller said. “That is where a lot of the success comes from. We have service industries, drug stores, dry cleaners, banks, restaurants, galleries and gift shops. Because of the variety you don’t get that reputation that it is just restaurants downtown or professional offices downtown.”
Miller credits participation in the Main Street program with helping attract and keep businesses downtown. Through that program efforts are made to keep the area attractive and green.
“The downtown is really where everything is happening,” Miller said. “There is that sense of community that you get with good sidewalks and the fact that people walk and talk and meet each other. A lot of that one-on-one communication that downtowns used to afford people has been lost in other areas of the U.S.”
In Pascagoula, the downtown has a good base of professional and governmental offices. While there are still vacancies in the heart of the downtown area, there have been new business openings recently. A new Save-A-Rex recently opened downtown, and a couple of new restaurants have opened recently.
“The downtown has come back,” said Grace Guess, economic development director for the City of Pascagoula. “It is no longer completely retail, but a mix of professional office and retail. It has changed in composition, but it is definitely a thriving area.”
Efforts are continuing to recruit more retail businesses into Pascagoula’s downtown area with more diversity in the mix as a goal. Guess said there has been a lot of interest in two large vacant buildings downtown, as well as one smaller building. “But we haven’t quite made the match,” she said.
Pascagoula business and government groups are currently debating the fate of the canopy downtown added during urban renewal efforts. Canopies in other cities like Biloxi have been removed. Some downtown merchants want to keep the canopy. Currently studies have been done and written public comments are being accepted on preliminary drawings that show options.
Another Coast downtown that has plenty of opportunities for commercial development is Bay St. Louis. Named one of the best small art towns in America, Bay St. Louis has a large number of restaurants, galleries, gift shops and antique dealers. Occupancy rates are high, and renovation of existing buildings continues to improve the charm of the city by the bay.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.