Former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey has stepped back into public service to fill a position he believes will help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina and build for the future. In August, Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Blessey as Gulf Coast housing director, a position designed to facilitate progress in the housing recovery. Blessey, 66, will work under a professional services contract through the Mississippi Development Authority.
Both say Blessey did not apply for the position, but was drafted. Blessey, who has most recently served as general counsel and president of Tradition, a planned community in Harrison County, hopes six months to a year will be sufficient to help the housing recovery team get the job done.
“This is an awesome responsibility,” he says. “However, I will be part of a great, professional team that is already in place at MDA (Mississippi Development Authority) and the Governor’s Office of Recovery. Also, MDA has many local partners in non-profit groups as well as local governments and housing authorities, all of whom have been working diligently with state and federal agencies to accomplish the task of providing affordable housing.”
Blessey and the team have set visionary goals for direct assistance to homeowners to rebuild, to create new or rebuilt affordable rental units and to build new long-term, workforce housing units.
“I hope to accelerate the process for affordable rental units and new housing for approximately 3,000 jobs not filled due to lack of affordable units,” he said. “I also want to give special attention to the unmet needs of the elderly and handicapped.”
He does, however, see major challenges facing the Coast’s housing situation, including the need for lower insurance rates and construction costs and greater availability of first and second mortgage funds for borrowers with below median income.
“Additionally, we have at least 3,000 people in trailers and cottages who must have permanent locations and permanent housing by March of 2009, the deadline for removing temporary trailers and cottages. These are great challenges that we must solve together.”
This lifelong Coast resident shares the vision for a rebuilt area with the report that came from the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, which he feels reflects the consensus of the community and leaders from all walks of life.
“In essence, it is to bring New Urbanism principles to restore the traditional diversity of the built environment through mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods and downtowns, as they were in the old towns prior to World War II and before hurricanes devastated so much,” he said. “We aspire to have affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods near job centers.”
He added there’s a need for affordable housing to sustain jobs and encourage diversity in the economy, including shipbuilders at Northrop Grumman, casino employees, workers at the State Port, scientists at Stennis Space Center and many other business and industries in between.
“I grew up in east Biloxi in the 1940s and ‘50s when it was a traditional neighborhood of the type that the New Urbanists are now trying to recreate,” he said. “My family walked to school, church, ball games, the corner grocery store, the doctor’s office, the drug store and the movie theater. We also walked to the beach to go fishing and crabbing from piers that were open to the public. It was a mixed-income, mixed-use community with neighborhood commercial businesses and apartments everywhere. Low-income families lived next to higher income families, and all lived close to work.”
Years later when Blessey became mayor, he tried to set in motion some of these concepts that were inspired by his good friend, Lloyd Vogt, one of the original New Urbanism architects from Biloxi and New Orleans.
“I joined the Congress of New Urbanists and the Urban Land Institute in the ‘90s and have been a supporter ever since,” he says. “New Urbanism provides time-honored concepts for the planning and design of sustainable communities.”
Yet, he recognizes that all happy, just and sustainable communities are tied to healthy regional economies and rest on a three-legged stool of economic, environmental and social sustainability. These three goals, he believes, form the triple bottom line based on economic growth, conservation of the natural environment and social justice.
Blessey describes the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a string of historic small towns that, blended together, form a regional economy. Recreation and entertainment opportunities abound from museums and casinos to world class golf.
“I love the diversity of the population — many ethnic and religious groups, young families, retired and active duty military and other retirees and tourists from all over the world,” he said. “We are especially blessed by miles of waterfront and water sports such as fishing, sailing and just walking on the beach at sunset. The sea, as we know too well from hurricanes, can bring great tragedy, but it also brings great joy and sources of livelihood. With the new State Port at Gulfport, this area will become a major national and international business and tourism destination.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.