By LISA MONTI
The $93 million Mississippi Aquarium is coming out of the ground on the East Beach service road in Gulfport, on track to open late this year or by early 2020.
The attraction is expected to draw as many as 500,000 visitors a year and generate $340 million in annual revenue. It’s also gotten the attention of developers, and prompted other projects in the coastal city’s packed downtown.
There’s the transformation of the historic Markham Building, shuttered for years, into a luxury 124-room Hyatt Place. Down the beach a bit at the sprawling Centennial Plaza, once a VA facility and long dormant, a 150-room Holiday Inn Resort, a large restaurant, a water park and even a wedding venue are among the $145 million makeover. New office buildings and a Patio 44 restaurant are among smaller but significant additions to downtown.
Gulfport spokesman Chris Vignes said the construction activity at the aquarium and Centennial Plaza is moving “at an impressive pace” and the action is generating even more interest. “Developers from outside markets are coming in daily. They want to be a part of it because of the attention we’re getting,” he said.
Vignes said some 12,000 to 13,000 people work in downtown Gulfport, which he calls the business hub of the Coast, with various banks, law offices, and the nearby State Port and casino resorts all open there.
Brian P. Bolis, senior vice president of NAI Sawyer commercial real estate brokerage located in downtown Gulfport, said, “There’s no question there has been some activity related” to the aquarium construction. A prime example is the long awaited Markham rehab finally getting under way. The aquarium and the hotel should be completed and open around the same time.
Patio 44, a seafood and steak restaurant, recently opened its third south Mississippi location on property that was home to First Presbyterian Church before Katrina. A new office building was constructed across from St. Peter’s Church.
Bolis said there are still some smaller lots available to build on in downtown, where prices have settled down from the top dollar range paid when the aquarium was in the planning stage. Back then a parcel in front of the Markham sold for $34 a square foot.
“Downtown has really come a long way from where it was five or six years ago,” Bolis said. “The thrust of it has been restaurants, bars and of course offices, particularly a lot of law offices and banks.”
Residential activity has been seen on Second Street which runs parallel to U.S. 90 and also along the beachfront, which was raked over by Katrina.
But residential building isn’t matching commercial growth. “That’s the dilemma, really,” Bolis said. “What we need in downtown are apartments, townhouses and single family homes. It would be nice to have a market down here and stores, but you’ve got to have residents here” to support them.
Bolis said the aquarium plus hotels and other attractions likely will spur more investments in Gulfport. “I think you’ll see activity as it gets closer to opening. It’s going to be a great economic driver not only for Gulfport but for the coast.”
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