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Will former ‘Seafood Capital of World’ come back as working waterfront?

Imagine that one day visitors to Biloxi can no longer buy shrimp off a boat in the harbor of a town that was once known as the Seafood Capital of the World.

Prices for waterfront land on the Coast are going up, up, up. Unless something is done, traditional businesses on the Coast tied to the water could be in dire straits without a place to dock their boats and sell their catch.

The problem is not unique to Mississippi. In fact, for many years Mississippi has had some of the most reasonably priced waterfront land in the U.S. But with major casino and condominium projects on the Coast putting pressure on waterfront land costs, traditional waterfront businesses are feeling the squeeze.

Other states like Florida and Maine have taken steps to protect their working waterfront so that fishing and tour operations — and the businesses that serve them — still have access to the water to ply their trade.

Mississippi could benefit from waterfront plans similar to those made in Panacea, Fla., and in Maine to preserve working waterfronts, says Martin Hegwood, senior attorney, executive division, Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office.

“It you don’t plan, haphazard growth often has bad consequences,” Hegwood said. “You have to know where you are going.”

A workshop, “Balancing Coastal Needs: Working Waterfronts on the Coast,” was held in early June in Biloxi. The workshop was a first pass at planning for working waterfronts on the Coast in the future.

“As it goes on, obviously everybody will get a clearer picture,” Hegwood said. “We can learn from people in other states who have been there and done that by adopting a working waterfront model.

“Obviously what we want to do is come up with a coherent plan and not do it on a piecemeal basis. This dovetails into the governor’s charrette planning process. We want to make sure everyone has a shared vision, and that will take input from many different sectors such as real estate, tourism, commercial fishing and recreational fishing. All those different elements need to come together to have a shared vision.”

Gollott Oil Dock & Icehouse in Biloxi is one of the few facilities after the storm providing vital supplies to shrimpers such as diesel, oil and ice. It also provides offloading facilities for the shrimp catch.

“We’re back in business, but a condo or casino has purchased the land my business is on,” said Richard Gollott, Gollott Oil Dock & Icehouse, who supports Mississippi developing working waterfront models such as those seen in other states. “The fishing industry can’t compete economically with the cost of land. I have been told there is only one place between Ft. Myers and Tampa in Florida where you can unload boats anymore. We are losing waterfront to the casino industry, condo industry, and in Louisiana, the oil companies are buying lands that used to support the fishing industry. The seafood industries cannot compete for millions of dollars per acre.”

Gollott said economic diversity on the Coast has been a key to success. Major pillars of the economy are tourism, casinos, government/military installations, shipbuilding and the seafood industry.

“I would love to see it stay diverse,” Gollott said. “A lot of different things have helped us economically. If one thing slowed down, the other things would carry us. The shrimp industry was almost a billion dollar industry impact in Harrison County last year. We had shrimp processing plants in D’Iberville, Biloxi and Ocean Springs, and facilities in Gulfport and Pass Christian down towards Waveland. Fishermen buy fuel, nets and groceries. They support the community.”

Gollott said he has been given plenty of time to find a new facility and move. But he believes more needs to be done to replace the commercial fishing facilities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“We actually have a commercial fishing dock at the north end of Lee Street, which is great,” Gollott said. “It just isn’t big enough. It is going to be up to the cities, counties and state if we continue to have a seafood industry in our area. The continuing increase in waterfront land costs is not unique to our area. It is happening all over the U.S.”

Gollott supports legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine in Congress that provides financial assistance to set aside areas for the seafood industry.

“This is a great idea,” Gollott said. “Unfortunately, with the storm, it is not a big priority.”

This is a problem anywhere there is a waterfront, said Dave Burrage, professor of marine resources for the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

“Right now about 50% of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coastline,” Burrage said. “They aren’t making any more waterfront property. People like to live by the water and the prices you can get for land adjacent for navigable water has gone up to the point it is almost out of reach for working waterfront businesses. They can’t afford to pay what casino developers are willing to pay for waterfront property.”

Burrage said the ideal situation to preserve a working waterfront would be to have the public sector buy land outright from private owners, hold it and provide dedicated public access. Use of the facilities for waterfront businesses wouldn’t be free, but would be affordable.

“We just want to make sure in the process of rebuilding the Coast subsequent to the storm that these folks who have traditionally relied on access to waterfront to conduct businesses aren’t left out of the mix,” Burrage said. “Some people’s ideas of highest and best use of property may be different than others. Our take is that we think there is room for everyone.”

Burrage said partners in the working waterfront planning include city leaders, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Department of Marine Resource and “anyone else we can find in trying to make sure that folks are not left out of consideration. To their credit, the Biloxi port director and mayor get it. They understand Biloxi is more than casinos, and that there are other interests and traditions they have to support. They are just trying to find a way to do this properly.”

LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, said three things need to happen to move the effort forward.

“One, we need to have a formal working group or coalition of people who have a vested interested in working waterfronts,” Swann said. “Second, we need to develop a plan of working waterfronts that includes an inventory of present facilities and projects over the next 20 years in terms of additional waterfront access. We need to consider how you balance that with other forms of development including condominiums and casinos. The third thing would be to secure the funding to acquire this property for the future.”

Swann said the definition of a working waterfront is not just commercial fishing, but the charter boat industry, as well as other forms of nature-based tourism such as boat tours, sailing, beach-going and other sorts of activities.

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

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