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Population growing in Gulfport in spite of loss for county

The City of Gulfport is growing. That’s in spite of population loss in some areas of the city and in Harrison County that is attributed to Hurricane Katrina.

Before the 2005 storm, the city had a population of 75,000; making it the state’s second-largest city. Mayor Brent Warr now estimates the population at close to 80,000, based on the 13% increase in customers for services provided by the city. Geographically, Gulfport covers 70 square miles.

“We have thousands of applications for new residential construction in the city’s permitting queue,” he said. “There’s construction all over the city, but more in the areas north of Interstate 10. There’s also a big area of growth between Pass Road and I-10.”

As the Coast celebrates the opening of the second U.S. 90 bridge, Warr noted that Gulfport is the only city between the two bridges that has had growth since Katrina.

“We were fortunate that we had available real estate, more functioning infrastructure and the city was not as built out as others,” he said. “Now, Smart Code is being embraced, and that gives us the opportunity to rebuild in areas that might have been obsolete according to the codes established in the 1970s when lots were required to be certain sizes. There are thousands of lots like that in the city. We hope to enact it for all areas.”

It’s also possible that adopting Smart Code will slow down urban sprawl and put real estate back on the market that already has infrastructure. It also allows retail that’s appropriate to be located on select corners in residential areas. Warr said downtown, although not currently active residentially, is now the best place to invest in real estate because property there is under valued.

California transplant Rick Camarina is a believer in downtown where he and his partners in the Mississippi Redevelopment Alliance (MRA) have purchased six buildings (100,000 square feet of space) and are renovating them.

“It is an ongoing challenge, and the first challenge is obviously the insurance,” he said. “Another challenges is adequate parking downtown. Some buildings have been knocked down to make parking space. We want to keep people downtown.”

His partners are fellow Southern Californians, Michael Albrighton and Simone Frantinnelli, who are originally from Baton Rouge, La. Their focus is on making commercial space available but they are hoping renovations will lead to more retail and residential utilization.

One recent success story is P.J.’s Coffee Shop Camarina conned his cousin, Kendall Henry, into opening in the old Toggery Building. “They’re serving 450 customers a day, and that’s fantastic,” he said. “They’re open on weekends and that’s growing, too.”

The old Clower Building on 26th Avenue has 30,000 square feet fully leased out to UBS Financial and federal offices. The partners hope to get the Hewes Building open next year to provide office executive suites. The plan is to convert the second and third floors of the Kraemer Building into residences because they have great views of the water.

More inviting landscaping and building facades would entice more shoppers and residents downtown, Camarina said. “That would be a huge economic boost to downtown. Another would be to have more banks embrace what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s slow and methodical, but we can now tell people how to do it.”

He says getting Larry Jones back as the city planner is a huge benefit for growth. “He’s been instrumental in getting third parties to do inspections,” he added. “He got an inspector from Natchez who is good with historical preservation, and that has helped.”

Attorney John Harral is also a proponent of growth downtown and serves as president of the Downtown Association. “What Rick Camarina has done with the P.J.’s is very good, and renovating the buildings serves as an example of what can be done,” he said.

Other areas are growing too, including the area around the expanding Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport where Corporex is using GO Zone incentives as it builds office and hotel space.

However, Harral said the challenges are too overwhelming in many cases for the GO Zone legislation to overcome. “We need more incentives,” he said. “That’s why the Main Street Association is having a dialogue with the City Council about what we can do.”

Warr said the major intersections of I-10 are busy with growth, such as the quality retail shopping center scheduled to be built on the northwest corner of the Cowan- Lorriane intersection.

Looking ahead, he would like to see the city solve the terrible traffic problems that exist on U.S. 49, Pass Road, Dedeaux Road and in the Three Rivers-Creosote Road area.

“We need to solve the zoning issues that are causing problems. We also have to get the harbor rebuilt and the master plan for Jones Park carried out,” he said. “That area will be so nice businesses will want to be there.”

Workers are scheduled to begin driving test pilings in the harbor this week with dredging to be nine feet and space for 350 boat slips. Decorative lights are going up on U.S. 90 along non-residential areas this month, too.

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


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