Exploring big ideas, bright future at the Mississippi Renewal Forum

by Becky Gillette

Published: October 24,2005

In mid-October, Mississippi received unprecedented national attention.

No, this time it wasn’t more scenes of the vast devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Rather, the attention was about the proactive efforts of architects, planners and engineers from across the country teaming up with a wide spectrum of Mississippi business and political partners to undertake the largest New Urbanism planning effort in the history of the U.S.

The Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal (www.governorscommission.com) sponsored a Mississippi Renewal Forum October 12-17, an intense planning effort that gathered under the umbrella of architect Andrés Duany of Miami.

Duany is considered the father of New Urbanism, a movement that brings back the more walkable, compact, mixed-use communities of 30 years ago before malls and urban sprawl dealt a death blow to many downtowns that were previously the heart of their communities.

The Sun Herald called the process a “Vision Quest.” The Mississippi Press in Pascagoula called it a “Blueprint for Revival.” And the national press lauded the efforts as a way to not just rebuild the Gulf Coast after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, but also reinvent the state’s image.

USA Today said New Urbanism is “a movement that has rarely been linked with Mississippi sensibilities. The state, still haunted by its violent civil rights history, often ranks last or close to it in measures of progress from educational attainment to per-capita income. In the public eye, Mississippi and progressive thinking are rarely synonymous.”

But with Mississippi embracing smart growth principles designed to protect the environment while creating more livable and desirable communities, the state’s image has taken on a new luster.

“New Urbanism and Mississippi is an oxymoron right there in the minds of most people,” Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, was quoted as saying in USA Today. “It’s definitely different from how we’ve done things in the past.”

Getting started

The Mississippi Renewal Forum kicked off October 12 with speeches from Jim Barksdale, the philanthropist and former CEO of Netscape who was named to head the governor’s commission, Gov. Haley Barbour, Duany and business leaders of the five subcommittees of the Governor’s Commission.

Barksdale admitted there had been controversy around the process, but said that was inevitable considering the scope of the complex process, the largest “charrette” planning effort ever attempted.

A charrette is an intensive planning process where architects, engineers, planners, elected officials and the public work in a collaborative process to discuss and develop alternative solutions to growth or building issues. A charrette team was assigned to make recommendations for each of the 11 Coast communities. (For more information, see www.mississippirenewal.com).

Duany is best known as the architect of Seaside, an upscale planned community located in the Panhandle of Florida. That gave some people the mistaken impression that the planning effort in Mississippi was about copying the Seaside model of quaint, colorful cottages surrounded by picket fences and brick sidewalks and streets.

“Don’t come to me and say you don’t want picket fences,” Barksdale said. “We won’t be just like Seaside.”

The million-dollar-plus homes in Seaside are far beyond the means of most Coast residents. And Barksdale made it clear that great efforts will be made to assure there are smart housing solutions for the middle- and low-income residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

New methods for progress

Barksdale said long term the Coast must use new methods to achieve progress. And much of the success of the Coast’s vision for rebuilding is going to fall not on the backs of government, but the private sector.

He acknowledged that the intensive planning effort being attempted is very ambitious. “But you always do better when the threat of death focuses your mind,” Barksdale said. “There will be another hurricane coming. There is no doubt. We must be ready with bold new ideas, big ideas.”

Duany said the charrette wants to avoid pie-in-the-sky ideas that would be put up on a shelf to gather dust. He said the recommendations must be practical enough to be implemented by the private sector.

Duany said their first efforts were to listen, and take in a huge download of information.

“It is shocking to see from a helicopter the complete destruction of hundreds of years worth of human endeavor,” Duany said. “What is rebuilt must be more durable. Renewal is about having a better place than you had before. There must be some measure of value so the outcome of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is greater than before. If not, in the future you will permanently be pining for what you used to have. Absolutely it is essential that we end up with something better than what we lost.”

Duany pointed out that more old houses survived than new ones, which is an important lesson. And he said in some ways the area looked better 25 years ago than it did before the storm. He said the Coast needs to go back to where it was at the best with communities where people could walk to stores, churches and schools from their homes, providing more opportunities for social interactions.

An impassioned speech

Barbour, who had just come from a ribbon-cutting for a privately funded effort to provide temporary housing for 700 people in Waveland, gave what some said was one of the best speeches of his career. He admitted he didn’t know what a “charrette” was before Hurricane Katrina, and that he doesn’t know much French beyond “bon bon.”

“I guess bourbon is a French word,” he joked.

Barbour later teared up when telling a story about a couple in rural Jackson County who were using a generator to wash clothing they had salvaged from their destroyed home when relief workers arrived offering supplies. The couple told them to give the supplies to someone who needed them more.

Barbour said that of the 5,000 households that have applied for disaster relief in Mississippi, 88% are still on the Coast.

“Our people aren’t leaving,” Barbour said. “When we talk about rebuilding, it will be done with the people who were here before the storm hit.”

Barbour said his commission, which is privately financed and operated, doesn’t have the authority to impose any regulations or force any changes.

“We will expose the government decision-makers to a lot of new ideas,” Barbour said. “But the ultimate determiner of the quality of life of the Coast after Katrina will be the private sector, not government.”

Barbour spoke of the hundreds of people who survived the storm by hanging in trees. He talked about the 24 Waveland police officers whose station was flooded and then collapsed. The police who had planned to rescue others after the storm had to first rescue themselves by swimming away to safety. Even after losing all their patrol cars, the police went out on search and rescue missions.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that Mississippi spirit,” Barbour said.

He referred to the four great disasters to strike Mississippi: the Civil War, the Flood of 1927, Hurricane Camille and Hurricane Katrina.

“It is our fourth chance, and I’m determined we aren’t going to miss this chance,” Barbour said.

Work well underway

Anthony Topazi, who chairs the Governor’s Commission subcommittee on infrastructure, showed that a lot of work had already been done on the Coast to rebuild vision even before the first meeting of the charrette.

Topazi spoke at length about the subcommittee recommendations including gateways and greenways, balancing growth and environmental protection, and moving the CSX freight trains from the present railroad tracks paralleling U.S. 90 through the most densely populated areas of the Coast to north of Interstate 10.

He also discussed the potential for shared public services, putting sewer and water systems at appropriate elevations, and making plans for recycling and beneficial use of hurricane-felled timber as an energy source in future disasters.

D’Auby Schiel, the CEO of Community Bank who chairs the finance subcommittee of the Governor’s Commission, said it is critical that local cities and counties don’t default on any payments.

Schiel said the Coast may need to consider innovative ideas such as sales of assets or concession services and toll booths for bridges or highways. She recommended consideration of tax exemptions for businesses that might not have been eligible before such as large commercial and residential developments.

Schiel said it will take funding from large and small bond houses as well as consortiums of banks to finance the reconstruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“It is a huge project,” she said. “But we are Mississippi, and we are up to it.”

Promising ideas for tourism

Ricky Mathews, publisher of The Sun Herald and chair of the tourism subcommittee, said tourism has been the lifeblood of Mississippi and clearly will be a major part in rebuilding the Coast’s economy.

“A lot of our history and culture has been destroyed,” Mathews said. “We need to inventory what is left. There are hundreds of ideas to explore and research. We were already growing as a tourist destination, and now we have the opportunity to be a world-class destination. We have to make sure we not only rebuild what we had before, but take advantage of new opportunities.”

Ideas Mathews said hold promise include:

• Retail theater, art, restaurant and museum clusters.

• Educational tourism and ecotourism including a zoo/botanical garden.

• A cruise ship terminal in Gulfport.

• A master plan for developing Point Cadet in Biloxi including construction of a new J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

• Enhanced hospitality industry training and education.

• Condo/casino/recreational complexes.

• A golf trail for national and regional tournaments.

• A sports complex.

• A NASCAR race track perhaps located near the Mississippi-Louisiana state line.

• Regional marketing to promote South Mississippi as a whole, and enhanced marketing of the area for relocating retirees.

Industry and defense vital

Jerry St. Pé, chair of the defense and government contracting subcommittee, said defense contracting will continue to be critical to the Coast’s economy. He said that big defense contracts to the private sector are worth about $1.5 billion annually, creating 30,000 jobs.

St. Pé said it is critical to quickly provide housing for workers displaced by Katrina.

“One-third of the workforce at the shipyards is not able to report to work because of housing problems,” St. Pé said. “Government contracting is a long-term proposition. To have a third of the workforce out will impact future contracts.”

St. Pé also recommended that the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process be expedited to have properties such as the Naval Station Pascagoula on Singing River Island given back to the state for redevelopment.

Raising the bar

After the intensive five-day charrette meetings ended October 17, one participant predicted the exercise would end up increasing the self-esteem and visibility of the Gulf Coast.

“People all over the country will realize how wonderful this part of the Gulf is,” said Michigan-based retail consultant Robert Gibbs. “It’s a highly desirable place that will attract tens of millions of dollars of investment in the next generation. They are about to be discovered. Their responsibility is to understand they don’t have to take whatever comes along. They can raise the bar for developers, and developers will take the charge seriously.”

The Governor’s Commission plans to produce a final report by the end of 2005 summarizing the best ideas for rebuilding these communities and presenting a broad vision for renewal.

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

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