Jackson — Almost 10 months after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, things are looking up in Gulfport and the city is going to be okay. That’s the message Mayor Brent Warr brought to the June 12th Stennis Capitol Press Corps lunch about the state’s second largest city.
To date, 30,000 building permits have been issued and retail sales are booming. Warr, a former retail business owner, said sales tax is the city’s bright spot. There was an increase of 116% in sales tax receipts for January this year over the same month last year.
“The biggest horse we have is the retail sector and thank goodness most of the businesses are north of the CSX railroad tracks and were not destroyed,” he said. “Soon after the storm, I reminded business owners they would sell everything from clothes to furniture to t.v. sets to Q-tips because many people lost everything they had.”
He said the Harrison County city was in a tremendous boom retail wise before Katrina and to say it’s exploded since the storm is an understatement. Gulfport has 73,000 residents and is large geographically. Warr said that size helped with recovery because everything was not destroyed.
Retail rebound, but…
Although retail is rebounding, the city took a hit on water by writing off one month’s fees for all residences and businesses, and on property taxes. “We will face the loss of property taxes more next year as people decide how much they will improve their property,” he said. “But, housing and real estate have appreciated.”
Warr says rebuilding single-family homes on the beachfront is important to maintain the area’s character. The creation of restoration districts will help make neighborhoods like they were before the storm. “We will ask that they be governed by smart codes so we won’t have something such as a domed concrete house that doesn’t fit in with a neighborhood,” he said.
Asked about his thoughts on the almost 400% increase requested by the wind storm insurance pool that is spread among homeowners and businesses nearest the beach, Warr replied that such an increase will hurt rebuilding. “The whole thing will have to be addressed. The insurance industry will have to look at it,” he said. “If you can’t insure property, you can’t finance it. We must be engaged and have fair discussions.”
In what the mayor calls “totally a fluke,” a hiring freeze for city employees was enacted two weeks prior to Katrina. It was intended to save the city money through attrition without laying off anyone.
“We lost 11% to 14% of our employees after Katrina by people retiring and moving away,” Warr said. “We’re saving $3.7 million annually from that.”
Shortly after his election last year, the Republican mayor had to declare two states of emergencies for tropical storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis before the monster storm Katrina roared ashore. “I had located the coffee pot and the men’s room when the first one was declared,” the first-term mayor said. “I called Mayor Holloway in Biloxi and he explained how to declare a state of emergency.”
He had high praise for Holloway, Harrison County supervisors, Gov. Haley Barbour, Leland Speed and others for their leadership and assistance. “If anyone had told me a year ago that I would be mayor of a city and go through the greatest natural disaster in our country’s history, I never would have dreamed it would happen,” he said. “It’s an honor and I’m proud of the incredible people who live there.”
Rebuilding plans call for the creation of an entertainment district in the area where trucks now park at the State Port and will include casinos. The city’s small craft harbor and 40-acre Jones Park will be part of this area, too. The city lost two casinos but one, the Copa, will reopen in the former Grand Casino’s Oasis Hotel on U.S. 90.
Shining ‘like a brand new penny’
As the state’s newest Main Street city, Gulfport hopes to revitalize the old downtown area. Warr said the area will be an example to the rest of the country.
This summer’s tourism season is a challenge mainly because of the lack of lodging. “Convincing tourists to come and finding places for them to stay is the biggest thing,” Warr said. “Tell them to bring a tent.”
He is disappointed that federal funding fell through to move the CSX railroad tracks. Coast and state leaders had hoped to build an east-west highway corridor along the abandoned tracks. “That was a biggie,” he said. “We don’t need our primary artery, Highway 90, to be shut down after a storm as it was following Katrina.”
Warr concluded by saying that Gulfport has an amazing opportunity and will take advantage of it. “We’ll shine like a brand new penny,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.