Governor’s Commission begins meetings

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Published: January 16,2006

At this point no one can say what the new Coast will look like, but it will look different as it rises from the hurricane rubble. There’s talk of strict new building guidelines, more high-rise condominiums on the beach, a version of the planned town of Seaside, Fla., and on and on. In many ways, the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal holds the key and members of the commission do not yet have the answers. They hope to make decisions based on what residents of the communities want.

“This is an enormous challenge and we must reach many people,” Gov. Haley Barbour said. “Local people will decide how the Coast looks.”

Committees on specific issues and geographic areas were beginning to meet as this issue of the Mississippi Business Journal went to press. Town-hall type meetings are soon to come, too. The governor stresses that meetings are open to the public and that many people will be part of the process.

“It is important to emphasize that these tools and designs will be made available to local public officials and other local stakeholders, but not forced upon them. The processes are as important as what we do,” he added. “State government won’t decide how Long Beach or Pass Christian looks.”

Peoples Bank president and lifelong Biloxi resident Chevis C. Swetman lost two family homes on the beach and had extensive damage to some bank branches. He says he will rebuild and is pleased to serve on the commission.

“I think what the commission does will give us a better focus and it won’t slow down the rebuilding process,” he said. “We will look at what will happen to scenic areas and what can be done.”

Swetman says he is pro-condos and thinks the condo building will continue. He would also like to see Highway 90 become a scenic highway. That could happen if the CSX Railroad tracks are moved north.

Gulfport attorney Paul Franke, also a member of the commission, agrees. “Moving the railroad and using that property to develop an East/West expressway could transform Harrison County,” he said. “It would alleviate traffic on Highway 90 and be much safer. It would also open up the downtowns of the county.”

The lifelong Gulfport resident wants to see the Coast be better than ever. His home on Bert Avenue and his sister’s home on 2nd Street were destroyed. “We thought we had built to withstand high winds but not many houses can withstand winds of 140 miles per hour,” he said. “I feel sure there will be some new codes.”

He also hopes the commission’s work will give the area some uniform direction to rebuild to a different level rather than back the way it was.

Pascagoula realtor/broker Mark Cumbest is excited to serve on the governor’s commission because he sees it as an opportunity to develop some land use ideas he feels will improve life on the Coast.

“We’ll get into specifics as the process continues,” he said. “I agree with the governor’s assessment that if we build it back exactly the way it was, we will have failed. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to incorporate some ideas within reason that really make life better for us as well as make us more attractive to people who want to move here.”

Cumbest has 30 years experience in real estate on the Gulf Coast and serves as the Fourth Congressional District’s representative on the State Real Estate Commission. He said he doesn’t know if the Seaside development will be used as a model but that a number of concepts will be developed.

The commission, dubbed the “Renaissance Commission” by Barbour, is funded through private donations including $1 million each from Chairman Jim Barksdale’s foundation and from the Knight Foundation. In addition to local input, outside expertise will be used including that of Miami-based planner Andrés Duany who’s best known for conceptually designing Seaside in the Florida Panhandle. The commission’s Web site says the group will help connect local people’s hopes and visions for their future with the best ideas from the public and private sectors.

“I believe the commission can play a role by offering suggestions, ideas and models from other cities that have rebuilt,” said Barksdale. “We’ll look at the best ideas, and we’ll see what’s worked before and what hasn’t. I look forward to working with the people of the Gulf Coast and South Mississippi and encourage them to let their voices be heard. The opportunity is now. We must seize it.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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