By JULIA MILLER
For more than 50 years, downtown Biloxi has been facing a decline. Led by Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich, the city has partnered with the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District to reverse that path with the hope that a revitalization of downtown will lead to economic growth for the area.
“The goals, incentives, tasks and projects recommended in this plan will improve the quality of life for both Biloxi’s citizens and visitors throughout the city because implementation of the plan will dramatically increase the city’s tax base in order to better fund public infrastructure, education and amenities throughout the entire city,” said the SMPDD’s public hearing proposal to the Biloxi City Council in July.
The five-year plan is currently in the final review phase. The goal of the plan is to present the city with a series of small projects that lead to the final vision of a restored downtown.
Over the past 20 years, the city has been focused on the waterfront districts, such as MGM park, but SMPDD Senior Project Manager Lindsey Ward said the turn toward downtown has been much needed.
“I believe it’s beyond time for the City of Biloxi to take this on,” she said. “We’re taking downtown back and will restore it to its beauty.”
The first stages will focus on the Saenger renovation and a conversion of Howard Avenue to two-way vehicular traffic. An architect has been hired for the Saenger renovation, and plans are currently under way to begin work on the exterior of the ‘20s-era theater.
“The Saenger is where I want to start the restoration and revitalization of downtown,” Gilich said. “A good part of what people remember is the Saenger and Howard Avenue. You just can’t let it go.”
The construction on Howard Avenue is part of a reversal of the Urban Renewal project of the ‘70s that limited the roadway to pedestrian traffic and renamed it Vieux Marche. In the ‘90s, the city opened the roadway up to one-way traffic.
A nationwide study by the Downtown Fresno Partnership found that public streets converted to open-air pedestrian malls in the United States have an 89 percent failure rate. The majority of these have already been converted back to two-way vehicular traffic or otherwise repurposed.
The project will extend from the intersection at Reynoir Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It will also include the addition of either a four-way intersection or a roundabout. Approximately 114 parking spaces will be provided through a mixture of angled and parallel stalls. The preliminary estimate is between $1 million and $1.5 million and is expected to take less than six months to complete.
Other focuses include implementing grant/loan programs to promote businesses opening in the downtown area, enhancing the Biloxi Farmers Market and encouraging multi-use buildings. One building in particular that the city would like to see as a home for both commercial and residential purposes is the Barq Building.
“Any major community has people living downtown,” she said. “This restoration brings that back.”
Ward said options for the funding of the grant/loan programs are still be explored. They are looking at a combination of regional, state and federal opportunities. The city is currently talking to other cities who have succeeded at downtown revitalization.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” she said. “We’re just trying to maximize the opportunity for the City of Biloxi.
Originally, the city was looking at declaring the downtown area a tourism district, which would then allow the city to pursue a sales tax rebate through the Mississippi Development Authority. That plan is now being re-evaluated.
“We decided if we do it, we should do it city wide,” Ward said.
The plan also calls for a downtown furnishings plan. This will allow the city to have a unified outdoor design that encompasses everything from seating to lights and plants.
“It keeps a specific look for an area,” she said. “It helps create that cohesive feel and element of a downtown.”
Going into any project like this, Ward said there’s always a nervous anticipation about what the public’s reception will be. Since the plan has been revealed, she said the supported has been phenomenal.
“People want to see downtown of Biloxi restored. They want to walk in their downtown. We’re fortunate that Mayor Gilich and his vision has brought us this far.”