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Downtown Gulfport battling to keep retail alive

GULFPORT — The downtown area of Mississippi’s second-largest city is going the way of downtowns everywhere, meaning there are people working there during the day but at five o’clock it becomes a ghost town. Many buildings are empty and range from renovated to slightly rundown to derelict and totally boarded up. There are very few retail outlets, and parking is challenging and inconsistent.

New two-hour on-street parking restrictions have been put in place, two buildings have been leveled to be replaced with parking lots, and the Coast Transit Authority operates a parking garage on the far east side of downtown across from a new federal courthouse.

Merchants and officials with the Gulfport Downtown Association (GDA) point fingers at city government, building owners who neglect their property and each other. All agree they would like to see people living downtown and feel that would bring more retail. There are those who say the deserted streets don’t just begin when downtown employees go home.

“Some days I could throw something and not hit anyone here. I don’t see anyone walking,” said Andrea Yeager, owner of Andrea’s Annex on 13th Street. “The potential is here, but it will take two or three years and most small businesses can’t wait that long.”

Yeager knows first hand. Her shop that sells low-carb, low-sugar and low- fat gourmet products and cooking gadgets opened one year and seven months ago. At first it occupied only the back portion of the large building. The bookstore that was in the front portion went out of business after several years in two different locations and left Andrea’s Annex rattling around in the space.

Now Yeager is closing and heading to Jeff Davis Avenue in Long Beach where she hopes to have the foot traffic needed to sustain her business. Yeager notes that Sandpiper’s gift shop is also closing and lists others that have come and gone in recent years. That leaves precious few retail stores. She feels high rents and utilities and landowners’ reluctance to make repairs are driving out small businesses.

“That is sad to me,” Yeager said. “Downtown Gulfport doesn’t support downtown Gulfport. People just don’t think about shopping here.” She and others have sponsored nighttime shopping, food tastings, book signings, art shows, sidewalk dining and numerous other special events to bring shoppers downtown.

“I’ve done everything but stand on my head,” she said. “It’s a hard nut to crack.”

To the east of Highway 49 on 14th Street, Deb Mareno is gradually moving items from her shop, Sandpiper’s to a new location on Pass Road. She will leave downtown when her lease is up on June 30. The shop sells art and gift items representing state artisans.

“It makes me sick because I love it down here,” she said. “It’s a shame. Seven new businesses came within a six-month period about three years ago, and I’m the last one.”

Mareno feels the city council wants retail shops downtown just to make themselves look good but doesn’t follow up with support. She says her suggestion of a street fair was turned down and that the GDA told her she’s not part of downtown because her shop is to the east of Highway 49.

“Moving was a hard decision to make, but I must do what’s best for my business,” she said. “My sales dropped over $18,000 last year.” One of few retail stores and the only downtown pharmacy, Triplett-Day Drug Store has held down the corner of 14th Street and Highway 49 since 1955. Poem Day Love has been there 23 years with her dad. She is the manager/bookkeeper for that store and others the family owns as well as the owner of three downtown buildings she leases.

“I don’t know what the problem is with parking. The city keeps changing the rules, but it’s too late for some businesses,” she said. “I don’t think the city cares.”

Love says she has tried to be involved with the GDA but doesn’t think it represents a unified effort. She gave up after 10 years.

“It’s like beating your head against a brick wall,” she said. “Even downtown night events were held on three nights instead of all of us getting together on one night to be open.”

She and the other retail owners point out the building eyesores and wonder if the city is pushing landlords to do something about them. One building in particular, the old Luckie’s on 13th Street, has been boarded up for 10 years, according to Love.

Steve Dickerson, business development director with the city, says it’s a lengthy process to have buildings condemned. There are many letters to write, court actions and lots of waiting for private property owners to come forth.

“There are obvious problems that still exist but in the past eight years many buildings have been renovated and that makes the eyesores that remain more obvious,” he said.

He adds that taxes are so reasonable that some property owners do not mind paying for buildings to sit empty.

“The city administration is extremely interested in downtown Gulfport and has been involved with the GDA and the chamber in initiating several activities to improve the downtown, including the seven-year tax abatement that has been responsible for the rehabilitation of more than a half dozen buildings,” Dickerson said. “A preservation board is presently being formed to look at issues including building code applications.”

John Harral, an attorney who leads the GDA, says revitalizing downtown seems to take two steps forward and one back. He is excited now about the area being named a business improvement district (BID), like Jackson. It’s a five-year program with definite goals and is dissolved after five years. Mississippi Development Authority executive director Leland Speed recently toured the area and spoke to local leaders about the program.

“He said he can’t believe what we have here as I drove him around,” Harral said. “We don’t have security problems here, which is how the bulk of Jackson’s funds were spent. Ours will be used for marketing, improving the appearance and parking.”

As members of the BID, downtown property owners will vote to assess themselves a fee based on the square footage of their property.

“Downtown is the heart of the city. If property owners step up and do this improvement plan, we expect the city to match our level of commitment,” Harral said. “I’m 100% convinced it will happen.”

He thinks it will take somewhere in the $100,000 to $150,000 range and doesn’t know what the assessment will be. A plan with specific goals will be developed.

A Gulfport Realtor who has also been active in the GDA, Marvin Koury says the BID’s street boundaries must be established and that a manager will be hired.

“We’ll be taxing ourselves to do projects and will look for matching funds from the city and others,” he said. “This is what we need for economic development.”

Koury sees downtown as the front door of Gulfport and bemoans what he perceives as a lack of city leadership. “They beat you up when you’re building but let vacant buildings sit there and deteriorate,” he said. Harral dittoed those feelings. “The city needs to have the backbone to do something about these buildings,” he said.

Both agree that apartments with people living downtown would be the right direction for the area to progress.

Dickerson said it’s been proven in other cities that people shop where they live, not where they work.

“We won’t have retail downtown until we have residents there,” he said, “and the city needs to provide some incentives to live there.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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