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Without an incumbent on ballot, Gulfport mayor’s race heats up

Gulfport — With municipal elections on this year’s political horizon, the Gulfport mayor’s race promises to be one of the liveliest. There is no incumbent running for the first time in many elections, leaving a wide open race.

The governing council of the state’s second-largest city has made the news numerous times during the past few years for meetings permeated by bickering and name calling. Also, rapid growth came with the annexation of the Orange Grove area and the city has been plagued with water and sewer problems as antiquated systems struggled to keep pace.

A large field of candidates is rumored to be eyeing the mayor’s race. Some have already announced and begun campaigning. City Clerk Amelia Bordeaux said six candidates filed statements of intent before Christmas. Those include Republicans Billy Hewes, Kim Savant and Brent Warr and Democrats Charles L. Walker, Clyde Williams and Gary W. Simpson.

“We do the leg work but the party executive committees will qualify the candidates,” Bordeaux said. “Candidates have until March 4 to qualify, and I feel I’ll have more people coming in to file after the holidays.”

She said the first party primaries will be held May 3 with runoffs May 17 and the general election June 7. The winner is scheduled to take office July 4 but the city clerk said that might change because of the holiday. There are approximately 43,000 registered voters out of a city population of 75,000.

Ted Riemann, owner of the Prime Time Group advertising agency and long-time political operative, says this mayor’s race will certainly be interesting. He has worked with many political campaigns and is assisting with Warr’s campaign this year.

“I believe the issues are leadership and more economic and business development,” Riemann said. “It will be one of the most interesting contests in Gulfport’s history.”

He says a poll conducted in August and September by Dr. Vern Kennedy with Marketing Research Insight revealed that residents want new direction and less bickering.

“The new mayor of Gulfport will have to build a coalition made up of all people to be successful,” he added. “We’re looking for broad based support from Democrats, Republicans, blue collar, white collar, blacks and whites.”

Steve Dickerson, 57, business coordinator for the city, announced his intentions to run for mayor as a Republican.

“It’s not easy to walk away from a job this close to retirement,” he said, “but it’s important this time. We really need someone who can lead and work with the council. I can be a liaison and work with groups to build consensus.”

Dickerson has been with the city 14 years and before that worked in journalism and the private sector. He feels business development is the key issue of the race and points to his record of working with more than 80 businesses that have opened or expanded during the past two years to the tune of $70 million per year in new retail sales and the creation of 1,500 new jobs.

Current councilman and mayor pro tem Kim Savant, 55, feels Gulfport has suffered by not being viewed as professional. He wants to change that image. The resident of 32 years believes communication is the key.

“Government must communicate to be effective and we have done that poorly,” he said. “Government must always be accessible and open. There is distrust without that.”

He says the strong mayor-council form of government is sometimes cumbersome but is the best form for Gulfport.

“The mayor is actually like the CEO of a large corporation,” he said. “The council meetings need to be more business like.”

Savant, a councilman for 12 years and mayor pro tem under two mayors, says economic development with its demands and pressures is the big issue. “Updating the water and sewer infrastructure is a major sub issue because we can’t accommodate economic development without these improvements,” he added.

Another councilman seeking the mayor’s spot as a Republican is Billy Hewes, who represents Ward Seven in Orange Grove. The insurance agent/real estate broker says he sees a lot of things he thinks he can do to get the city out of debt.

“I would put some assets to use that we have — Memorial Hospital and Jones Park — that some people think are sacred properties,” he said. “I would find out what people want to do through a non-binding referendum.”

Hewes recommends selling the hospital, valued at $300 million, and developing the Jones Park waterfront area with a hotel/casino project that would bring millions to the city’s coffers and create 500 to 600 jobs. He says the city currently owes $130 million.

“Another $50 to $60 million will have to be raised,” he said. “The development would also help us bring in cruise ships, and because it’s near downtown would help that revitalization too. We could then lower taxes rather than raise them and could be as good as any city in the country.”

Hewes, 65, also feels Gulfport needs to be more user friendly to make it easier to do business, and needs to improve beautification and transportation. He says it’s important to him to ask God to help in everything he does and that includes running for mayor.

Billboards are already up around Gulfport supporting Warr’s campaign for mayor. The 41-year-old Republican says he’s running because he feels the city needs new, energetic leadership that can take residents where they want to go.

“Every day I get more and more excited about it,” he said of the race. “I’m focusing a lot of attention on a positive team approach. It’s time to put the name calling and bickering behind us.”

A clothing retailer, real estate developer and one of three founding directors of Coast Community Bank, Warr says he understands how to do business and his background will be good for the city.

“It was significant when the bank opened in 1996 because it was the first new bank to open in Mississippi in over 20 years,” he said, “and now we’ve become a player.”

He says he would like to change the overall image of the city administration, treat citizens like customers and friends and develop a positive posture with the council and mayor’s office.

“I want the citizens to be proud of us. I don’t feel they are now,” Warr, who moved here in 1964, said. “I would try to create a workshop for the mayor and council before taking office and go through the team-building processes. That way we could learn each other and what’s important to each one.”

Warr says he feels strongly about this race because Gulfport has fallen behind on the Coast and it shouldn’t be that way. “We should have a community that’s exciting, beautiful and where there’s something happening,” he said.

“We have ground this thing down to a standstill by sitting here arguing and not having leadership. We should be considered the best place to do business. I’m not a politician but I feel it’s time to get involved.”

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

About Lynn Lofton

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