Gulfport — Approximately 150 people gathered for lunch at the Great Southern Club to discuss the wave of condominium development sweeping across the three coastal counties and the impacts this phenomena is having. All counties and cities were represented along with business, financial and industrial leaders. The group was assembled by Hancock Bank with Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), as a special guest.
In opening remarks, Hancock Bank president George Schloegel said the flurry of condo development is much like the major transformation that came to the area with legalized gambling.
Knocking on the door
“In the last decade, gaming came and all of us had a thousand questions,” Schloegel said. “We look back and say, ‘That was great. We did the right thing.’ Now, another change is knocking on the door and we have only one chance to get it right. If we do it right, we can be proud of what we’ve done.”
A voice count by representatives of cities and counties revealed that 30 condominium developments have been permitted with approximately 80 being considered.
He noted that the locations sought by the majority of these condominiums are along U.S. 90, part of the 2,300-mile Spanish Trail that runs across the southern United States.
The portion of the highway that runs through Mississippi’s coastal counties is the only part on the water’s edge. It is also only one of two places in the world where live oak trees grow at the water’s edge.
“This part of the state is 100 miles wide and it’s our home,” he said. “The winds of change are here and we’re representing our future.”
Schloegel said it was heartwarming to plan a meeting in seven days and bring so many people together.
Speed said he thought he would be speaking to 10 people.
“There’s a message in how many of you came,” he said. “I don’t know many places in the state where people would turn out like this on short notice. Now is the time to set guidelines, minimum size units and height restrictions.”
With his real estate experience, Speed said he’s seen condo development done well and not well. Using Panama City, Fla., as an example, he said 1,900 new units are being built with each having 800 square feet and designed to sleep six. These units will have detached parking garages.
“Doesn’t that sound charming? Please, let’s all be good stewards of this great opportunity,” he said. “Quality is profitable and sells.”
With the abundance of hotel rooms that the Coast has, he encouraged coastal leaders to avoid condo units that would become hotels and possibly high-rise slums. Instead, he suggested that quality condos will attract retirees and others looking for second homes.
“People pay big bucks to stare at water, and they’ll be happy to pay a premium price for that privilege,” he added. “My gut tells me they don’t want a big, fancy house. Many will rationalize a second home as an investment.”
He pointed out why second-home people are good for the tax base. They have no children in school. They’re gone a lot of the time. They pose no challenge to the police force and they pay their taxes.
The MDA director urged Coast leaders and residents to agree on rules. “The elected public officials will take the heat, and there’ll be big bucks and lawyers involved,” he said. “You will have to support these officials and stick together.”
Speed said the MDA will soon introduce a new building code called Smart Code to help communities control growth. Only 11 or 12 cities in America have adopted this code which melds guidelines for attractive, legal development. Baton Rouge, La., is the largest city that has adopted the code.
“For instance, the French Quarter in New Orleans and the historical district of Charleston are attractive but not legal,” he said. “Here you have Highway 49 North that is legal but not attractive.”
Schloegel said the cities and counties all have different guidelines and that is confusing to developers. “It would be good if the counties and cities come together and adopt a single code,” he said. “Permits are being granted every day. We don’t have much time. It’s not one city or county’s issue and developers will play one against the other.”
He suggested unified setback guidelines, green space, tree protection, landscaping requirements and safety provisions.
Jeff Taylor, executive director of South Mississippi Planing District, called for a meeting of representatives from all municipalities, counties and planning organizations to work on developing guidelines.
Some members of the group suggested a moratorium on new condo permits while others felt it might discourage investors and cause them to build elsewhere.
“What you have here that attracts people is not going away,” Speed said, “and putting a moratorium on new permits will not make developers go away.”
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said it would be hard to get everyone to agree on a moratorium.
Retired Sun Herald publisher Roland Weeks said, “You get these things done through leadership. We have the kind of leadership that’s insightful and interested in the best for everyone. We must use this leadership quickly and take advantage of the opportunity to solve these problems.”
Greg Cronin, CEO of South Mississippi for SouthTrust Bank, said, “We’ve watched what’s occurred in other places, and it’s important for us to know who we’re dealing with. We have some good builders here and it’s exciting.”
He added that good things have happened when all the banks have cooperated, and he feels working with condominium developers will be that way too.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.