Bridge opening boon for biz in Biloxi and Ocean Springs

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Published: November 12,2007

The recent opening of the Biloxi Bay Bridge is an important milestone in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. Biloxi and Ocean Springs are again connected and leaders on both sides of the bay anticipate a positive economic impact.

In Ocean Springs, John Bennett, who owns The Whistle Stop with his wife, Mary, says the bridge will definitely improve their business. The shop, located on tree-lined Washington Avenue, offers custom framing and sells local art that includes paintings in oil, acrylics and watercolors, pottery and wood turnings.

“What we have is great for tourists who want something from this area to take home with them. There have got to be people staying over in the casino hotels in Biloxi who will drive over the bridge and shop here,” he says. “I had a lady say that what should be a three-minute drive over here from Biloxi took 35 minutes.”

Jack Stevenson agrees. He and his wife, Jeannie, own the popular Salmagundi Shop, a 45-year-old business featuring almost 300 items. With the bridge out, their traffic from the west was greatly reduced.

“We have had local trade and through the years had customers from everywhere,” he says. “After gaming came to Biloxi, we gained many tourists and want them to come back.”

The Stevensons have hired additional employees to help them welcome visitors back and gear up for the holiday season.

Left unscathed by Hurricane Katrina, the picturesque shopping area of downtown Ocean Springs had an influx of shoppers immediately following the storm as volunteers along with FEMA and insurance personnel found their way to the town. It was one of few shopping areas left in tact. Now, the town is poised for another sales growth spurt.

Mayor Connie Moran says sales tax figures for Ocean Springs rose from $3.6 million to $5.1 million since Katrina. “That’s a pretty hefty increase, and that’s without the bridge being open,” she says. “I predict at least another 10% or 15% increase. It’s clearly a tremendous advantage to have it open.”

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway expects an immediate economic impact for the three Biloxi casinos operating east of Oak Street in the area known as Point Cadet.

“They’ve endured quite a handicap the past 26 months, operating at the end of a cul de sac,” he says. “More and more people are going to be reminded of the opportunities in East Biloxi now that the bridge is open. And consider the short-term promise of Point Cadet — the remainder of the bridge opens in April 2008, and in 2009 Margaritaville Casino comes online. The table is being set for a huge amount of economic development and growth in this part of Biloxi.”

One of those Point Cadet casinos, Palace Casino Resort, is introducing a new advertising message into markets east of Biloxi to direct guests to use the new bridge as a shortcut to the Coast and to its property. The new ad message ties into the resort’s current advertising campaign and promotions with reduced hotel rates, free play and restaurant and golf specials.

“The Biloxi Bay Bridge opening will provide access to the route many of our guests used prior to Hurricane Katrina,” says Palace general manager Keith Crosby. “All of us here welcome the return of a more convenient route for our guests living east of Biloxi. We will promote this shortcut for the next several months.”

He also says the casino has contracted with a local architect to rebuild the Palace Welcome Center near the foot of the bridge at the corner of U.S. 90 and Myrtle Street.

Rebuilding of homes and businesses has been slow in this part of Biloxi. Holloway says the re-opening of this vital artery will create renewed interest there. “For all intents and purposes, Point Cadet has been at the end of a dead end street since Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “The new traffic is going to remind people of the immense opportunities in one of the oldest sections of Biloxi.”

The city has also been taking steps to set the stage for economic growth there, creating a hospitality overlay district designed to encourage retail activity.

“I hope we’ll see some infill housing, both single-family homes and apartments,” Holloway says. “The fact remains, however, that FEMA intends to declare a large part of Point Cadet to be in a flood zone when its new maps are released, which will certainly present challenges for those looking to rebuild.”

In addition to increased revenues for Ocean Springs and Point Cadet casinos, Moran notes the reduction of stress and costs of the inconvenient, time-consuming commute for her citizens who work in Harrison County.

“We’re hoping for a win-win situation for both sides,” she says. “The bridge makes it easier for tourists to drive across to our shops, restaurants and attractions. There has been a lot said about what to call the bridge. I don’t care what it’s called. Just call it open for business.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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