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Tourism, cultural heritage institutions coming back

Many of the most important tourism attractions and cultural institutions on the Coast were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But as the region approaches the first anniversary of the storm that changed everything, cultural and tourism attractions are coming back.

“Water-based recreation is a part of our cultural tradition here, and that has come back strong,” said Steven Richer, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission. “Ship Island Excursions is taking people out to the island, charter fishing boats are operating, and the Biloxi Shrimp Tour has reopened. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art is in good shape, and we are looking forward to the long-term restoration at the Ohr Museum. And I’m thrilled the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center has reopened. An awful lot of people put in time in helping that restart.”

Although a large number of the Coast’s historic buildings were lost, particularly on the waterfront, “A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods” created by the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal provides some tools for helping rebuild Coast housing.

“We are hoping to see some of our historic buildings come back,” Richer said. “The state archives had some of the plans on file. I know we aren’t going to be back exactly the same way we were. But, on the other hand, we will come back better. We do have a special culture. The pattern book can help us doing some restoration. Throughout the Gulf Coast, it is very obvious people care about how special this place is. It is vital it doesn’t lose its character.”

Richer said the business community across the U.S. has taken note of the charrette planning meetings held in individual cities and across the Coast to help rebuild with smart growth techniques that create sustainable, livable communities.

“I get calls from all over the country from people who want to be involved in what happens here,” Richer said. “People look favorably on the planning processes, and understand this is a phenomenal opportunity of national proportions. It is truly exciting. There is not enough government money at every level combined to do what is needed. Without the private sector, the Mississippi Gulf Coast can’t be rebuilt. The Mississippi Gulf Coast will come out very well if we have set the table in ways that encourage private investors to bring back the community at a new level of quality.”

The first new major attraction to open since the storm is the Biloxi Schooner Pier (see www.maritimemuseum.org). In addition to facilities to load passengers on regularly scheduled or charter sailing trips, the new pier is a popular site for waterfront weddings, receptions, family reunions and other gatherings, said Robin Krohn-David, executive director, Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, Biloxi.

The museum located at Point Cadet was destroyed by Katrina. Krohn-David said they are hoping to rebuild at the former site of the Tullos Manor, an historic home destroyed by Katrina that was located across from the schooner pier. The museum lost a lot of artifacts when Katrina hit, and is soliciting artifacts and photograph donations for the museum.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport, named one of the top 50 children’s museums in the country, had a soft opening in early June.

“Lynn Meadows currently has its second floor open, plus outdoors there are six acres with tree houses and outdoor exhibits,” said Mary Anne Caldwell, public relations and marketing coordinator. “The first floor is still under construction. We felt it was important for families to have something that was safe and familiar, some green space for the summer. We have picnic tables, so it really lends itself to a nice family time.”

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Thus far visitation has been slight.

“It has been pretty slow so far,” Caldwell said. “The summer traditionally has been our big time for tourists and conventioneers. We probably just aren’t going to see that this summer.”

Tourism visitation to the Coast is off considerably because of a lack of hotel rooms. But that should change with the re-opening of one of the Coast’s largest hotels, the Beau Rivage, scheduled August 29.

Another major attraction on the Coast lost with Katrina was the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium in Biloxi. Recently the University of Southern Mississippi received a federal rebuilding grant of approximately $2 million. That is expected to be the cost of replacing the facility, which included a public aquarium, auditorium, classrooms, and offices after proceeds from insurance.

Katrina caused an estimated $298 million in losses on the University of Southern Mississippi, including the devastation of the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium in Biloxi. Demolition of the building’s remains began in late May.

“The marine education programs have been operating in interim quarters at the university’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs,” said Dr. Pat Joachim, Southern Miss associate provost. “We are researching different avenues about the future location, but marine education programs have restarted and will continue.”

Joachim said within days of the storm, Scott Aquarium personnel were engaged in recovery efforts. By October, they had resurrected their “on-the-road” program, visiting more than 2,600 students in 26 coastal schools through the end of the school year. The on-the-road team delivered programs with live animals and learning activities free of charge, thanks to a special recovery grant from the Office of Ocean Exploration within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The education center has also continued with its popular Sea Camp, a marine science day camp for youngsters ages 5-14. Approximately 650 students are expected to participate during the summer sessions.

“We are having a very successful sea camp this summer, and we are excited and positive about the future,” Joachim said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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