Pascagoula’s downtown was on the road to a renaissance before Hurricane Katrina visited, and city leaders were already using many concepts of New Urbanism. Now, after the storm’s interruption, the Jackson County city’s downtown is still on track toward revitalization with post-storm charrette ideas firmly in place.
There are new retail businesses, parks, walkways, landscaping and decorative lighting to make the area more inviting. The centerpiece, however, is the new 40,000-square-foot Merchants & Marine Bank, which opens this month.
“We are so very excited about what’s going on downtown, and the bank is our beacon of hope,” said Carla Todd, CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s encouraging just to drive by and see it. They’re hometown people, and the bank is one of those businesses that’s always there. We don’t have to ask them to participate in community events; they volunteer.”
‘Centered around M&M Bank’
Todd ticks off small businesses opening — Creative Expressions, Pro Health & Fitness and Wild Azaleas — among others that are bringing new life to downtown.
“It’s all centered around M&M Bank. It’s so big you can’t miss it,” she said of the bank which takes up a whole block. “You could put this bank in any city and it would stand out. It’s beautiful and each entrance could be the front door.”
City manager Kay Kell is also enthusiastic about the bank. “We’re using it as the design standard for everything,” she said. “We have other buildings winning Main Street awards, and we met with the people designing the new post office and told them how we want it to look.”
The new post office will be built on Jackson Avenue that leads into downtown. Kell says the designers are cooperating with the city and will connect the post office to downtown with pavers and attractive lighting. “It could have been a plain building, but with a few design changes, it will be nice and blend in,” she said.
‘A walking community’
There’s a lot of landscaping going on downtown that includes palm trees, hanging flower baskets, green space where buildings have been demolished, pavers, benches and new lighting. A downtown park is a key component. It will be the first built from plans developed through the governor’s charrettes. Kell credits the city’s new landscape architect, Kevin Hall, with much of the progress.
“We want it to be a walking community. We hope to have a street scape to connect the riverfront park, the park under the high-rise bridge, the historic pathway and the downtown area,” she said. “The idea is to tie the downtown to the river with a park on each end. The development of all of them is going on at the same time.”
Kell had planned to retire this July, but now says she wants to stick around to see completion of the city’s downtown projects. “It’s like the planets are aligned for this revitalization and development,” she said.
Long time community leader and M&M Bank board member Jerry St Pé couldn’t be prouder. “I see all of this from several vantage points,” he said. “Everything is coming together in a fantastic way, and we’re so pleased that the new bank is a stimulant for growth in the city.”
He cites the bank’s Southern design with covered porches, balconies and green space to bring people together. Designers and bank leaders were using the New Urbanism concept before they knew its name. The bank will have a courtyard park that’s almost an entire acre with as much green space as building space. Mark LaSalle, director of the local Audubon Society, consulted with the bank on the green space and made suggestions as to low maintenance plantings and the use of porous concrete. The green space is expected to be complete this summer and should facilitate outdoor events for the community.
M&M Bank president and CEO Royce Cumbest says approximately 80 employees will work in the downtown location, and U.S. Sen. Trent Lott will have an office in the building. Moving into the new facility is being done in phases with an opening to be announced later this month. With $500 million in assets, the bank has 75 years of service to the community.
The architect for the new facility is Roger Pryor, and the contractor is Fletcher Construction, a locally owned company. Total cost of construction is $7 million.
“We’re fortunate we had the contract before Katrina. We lost three months’ construction work but the storm expedited the work flow because we took down the old building earlier than planned and didn’t have to work around it,” he said. “We’ve invested a lot of money into the future of downtown Pascagoula, but it was one of the best decisions we could make.”
The bank began facility discussions five or six years ago with the big question of whether to renovate the existing building or construct a new one. Other business opportunities came along such as buying and opening branches, so the new building got put on the back burner.
“The timing of construction is fortunate. Now, it gives people a boost to see building going on downtown, especially the type of building we’re doing,” Cumbest said. “It goes along with the charrettes. They reflect our ideas, but we didn’t know it had a name. It’s a friendly type of construction where people can congregate and have conversation.”
With the bank on parade viewing routes, the bank’s porches and balconies take on added meaning. Parking around the bank is scattered and has landscaping to soften the look.
Cumbest predicts the next 10 years will bring a lot of activity and building in the area leading to a much improved downtown.
“We’re excited to be back downtown,” he said. “We wanted to give back to the community and create an open, inviting space.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.