Ocean Springs — It is fitting that the main entrance to downtown here is marked by railroad tracks and the historic L&N depot, for it serves nicely as a metaphor for the efforts of this coastal community to create a thriving enclave of restaurants, shops and galleries in the heart of the town’s historic residential area.
Like a train gathering steam, Ocean Springs’ downtown business district has been growing at an ever-faster pace, with new businesses opening at a seemingly astonishing rate of late and old, long-vacant “eyesores” giving way to stylish, new structures with trendy offerings. A European-style bakery, a store dedicated to fancy pooches and their doting owners, and a “pot bar” — a paint-your-own pottery studio — have all opened within the past few months along the Washington Avenue and Government Street corridors that serve as the two main thoroughfares of the retail and restaurant center of this city.
“At one point earlier this year, there were nine new businesses on Government Street opening in one month,” said Margaret Miller, director of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce, Main Street and Visitor’s Center. “That was in February, and that is when I began to realize that we had a small retail phenomenon going on here.
“Every business is full, and as fast as we can locate an old building to refurbish, it is being done and done very well, and opening at a pace I don’t see anywhere else on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Yet at the same time, what may seem like a freight train of change blowing through the area to some appears more like the proverbial underdog “choo choo” trying to make it up the mammoth mountain to others.
“I just don’t see it as fast-paced, but more of a progressed, methodical pace,” said Fred Moran, managing broker for Moran Realty Company, second-oldest on the Mississippi Coast and located on Washington Avenue in Ocean Springs since 1888.
Moran is also a property owner in downtown Ocean Springs, and has been involved in the rehabilitation of commercial buildings there, such as the recently opened Bellos Bakery building, which houses the bakery, the pottery studio and an art gallery.
“Redeveloping the old Appliance Parts building to create the Bellos Bakery building took 14 months from the start to when we actually gave the building over to the tenants, so I have a different view from someone who thinks it happened overnight,” Moran explained. “To me, the growth downtown has been a much more painful and labored process, because these buildings generate zero income when they are being renovated, yet the bills still have to be paid.”
Additional retail development
Still, Moran is “absolutely ecstatic” that three new businesses have opened in the Bellos building where only one existed before. He is also in talks with a local architect about developing five to six additional retail spaces behind that building to open within the next 18 to 24 months.
Miller concurs with Moran’s view, as well, noting that although there’s been a recent influx of new businesses to the area, it has been the groundwork laid over the past 10-plus years that has led to the area’s renaissance.
“Our small business owners have taken huge chances along the way, and for people like Fred, it’s been an uphill battle and will continue to be,” she said. “We had huge success five years ago and we could have sat back and said ‘This is good enough.’ We had 50 businesses downtown and 38 restaurants then.”
“But we didn’t. Now, we have nearly 100 businesses (including 15 art galleries) and 45 restaurants. To achieve that in a small, small downtown in just 10 years seems like the blink of an eye to me,” she continued. “But for the business owners, it is arduous everyday — you open your business and market, market, market, and those days are grueling. For them, five years is an eternity.”
Change comes to unique
downtown business district
Whichever view one takes — of rapid development or slow but steady growth — it’s evident that change has come to this unique business district, which has co-existed with the graceful, old oak trees that line Washington Avenue since at least the mid-1800s when the town’s name was coined by a New Orleans physician.
“We’ve never had a downtown that was closed, where nothing was opened and buildings were boarded up,” Miller said. “Our downtown has never been like that, but it’s never been like this either! Good business gets more good business, that’s how we explain our growth.”
It is a simple explanation and a modest one for the amount of work put into the development of the area by not only the chamber, its Main Street program and private developers, but also non-property business owners, local government and a very active civic organization, the Historic Ocean Springs Association, better known as “HOSA” (pronounced José.) That effort’s certainly been noticed by those outside the community.
“When we decided to open a retail outlet for our production bakery, we looked everywhere from Gulfport to Ocean Springs,” said Gerald Quick, co-owner of Bellos Bakery. “We looked for a year and eventually it came down to the area that really seemed to actively take care of itself.
“We believed Ocean Springs to be that way and see in it a community that feels local businesses are important and that is obviously very involved in the arts, so we felt it would be the best place.”
Quick is not alone. Miller regularly fields a steady stream of calls from people interested in opening businesses in the area. So does Moran, who says neither he nor any other property owner in the area has a square to spare.
“I have zero vacancy in commercial space, and neither does anyone else, so in order to accommodate new businesses, there has to be more redevelopment of old property for new businesses to locate here,” Moran said. “So that’s where we are — we’ve got to continue to redevelop some of these less-desirable, old spaces to allow for business expansion.”
To enhance such redevelopment, the chamber’s July newsletter reports that city planner Donovan Scruggs is working in conjunction with Main Street to acquire grant monies that will help fund off-street parking, sidewalk improvements and landscaping on Government Street.
“By making areas more pedestrian-friendly and inviting, it will make areas more vibrant,” Scruggs is quoted as saying in the publication. “It shows companies that want to locate here that the city does place an emphasis on beautification.”
Henry Furr, 2004 chamber president and owner of H.H. Furr Architecture and Development, says he hopes to see the successful revitalization of downtown Ocean Springs spread to nearby U.S. 90, where Courtney Farms, a produce market that serves as the western anchor of downtown Ocean Springs, is located.
“I would like for people to consider Highway 90 as part of our downtown and not separate from it,” Furr said. “As people open or refurbish businesses along the highway, I hope they give the same thoughtful development toward general aesthetics and the future that we’ve seen given to the downtown business buildings.”
“I would like to see people give thoughtful consideration to the placement of their parking lot, to landscaping and lighting, those sorts of things,” he continued. “And it is happening to some degree.”
Furr would also like to see more mixed-use development in the downtown area that would create more affordable residential living spaces, something that has not yet taken off to any significant degree.
Getting the word out
While business expansion and location is alive and well in the area, for Miller and the chamber, the challenge now is one of marketing the area to the public.
“Since the development of Government Street began some 10 years ago, we have made a strong effort, through the Main Street program, to advertise in order to keep the customer base up with the retail growth,” she said. “We have what people want and are making every effort to connect that with the public. It continues to be a challenge.”
In the meantime, businesses continue to open and one by one, the old “eyesores” sprinkled throughout the area are receiving extreme makeovers worthy of reality TV. In the past two weeks, a new café and gift store has opened in an old laundromat, two new antique stores are in the process of opening and a house is being rehabilitated to accommodate a new, un-named business to open within the next 30 to 35 days. September will herald the opening of the Ocean Springs Fresh Market, a year-round producer’s market that will be open on Saturdays only. The coast’s first film festival premieres in Ocean Springs in September, as well, and the chamber is launching an Art in Public Places project.
Clearly, the area shows no signs of slowing down.
“By no means do I think we’ve accomplished everything we’ve set out to,” Miller said. “There is still plenty of room for improvement.”
“There are still quite a lot of underutilized, underdeveloped properties,” he noted. “The change has been building over time, over the last 10 or so years, but it’s got a heck of a long way to go.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at email@example.com.