For communities looking to learn from the coast’s post-hurricane rebuilding strategy, start instead with Biloxi’s failures. Biloxi’s former mayors have a few words of advice. Heed them.
story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 28, 2010
If a massive hurricane is to one day destroy your city, and if you are in the position to actually do something about it, then Gerald Blessey has a few words of advice for you.
“The next day, you start thinking about the long term,” says Blessey, mayor of Biloxi from 1981 to 1989. “Because it’s true, you’re overwhelmed by the debris and by the emergency of the moment, but if you don’t start thinking about the long term then, then it’s even longer before you get to it.”
After both 1969’s Hurricane Camille and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi failed to heed those very words. In interviews with four of the city’s mayors, as well as other city officials both prior and present, a consensus has begun to emerge of a city continually hampered by either internal finances or outside leadership. In the 1970s, the city had no money to take on ambitious projects. Successes were low-key, like the construction of a new seawall to protect the coastline, and the building of the city’s first harbor for local fishermen.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Biloxi faced a different challenge: FEMA did not set up operations in Biloxi until nearly two months after the storm, and the federal government did not set new building codes and flood zones until months after that. At a time when locals wanted to rebuild, the federal response forced some projects onto shelves. Officials are, however, quick to praise the state government, which began staffing long-term relief organizations in the first days after Katrina hit.
Biloxi’s post-hurricanes successes have been, depending on who’s talking, either spectacular or spectacularly modest. No achievement compares to the arrival of legal gambling in July 1992. Since the first casinos opened that month, taxes on gaming revenues have generated a total of $408 million for Biloxi, according to city figures.
But for communities looking to learn from the coast’s post-hurricane rebuilding strategy, start instead with Biloxi’s failures. Know that the city has not grown significantly in the 41 years since Camille. The same three industries that drove Biloxi in 1969 — tourism, seafood and defense spending for Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base — still drive Biloxi today. The city’s population has not grown substantially, even though Biloxi’s city limits have expanded significantly since Camille, thanks to annexation.
These failures offer insight as to why.
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(At top) An abandoned building on the Vieux Marche. (Above) A sign for Rue Howard, which was supposed to be one of Vieux Marche’s signature streets
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The three most expensive planning failures in the history of post-Camille Biloxi, in reverse chronological order:
3. Margaritaville Casino & Resort:
In May 2007, when Harrah’s Entertainment announced their plan to invest $700 million into building Margaritaville on the site of the old Casino Magic, it would have been hard not to be optimistic about what was happening in Biloxi. The three biggest casinos on the coast — the Beau Rivage, the Hard Rock and the IP — were all back, and now here came Jimmy Buffett and Harrah’s, the coast’s favorite son pairing up with one of the world’s biggest casino operators to bring millions more in tourism revenues to the coast.
At a press conference, Buffett even jumped on stage to show support for the project. “As a survivor of storms myself, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude and good fortune to be part of the re-birth of the region,” he told reporters.
But the plan — 800 hotel rooms, 250,000 square feet of retail, plus gaming, to be opened in spring 2010 — came to a halt when the recession began. Harrah’s set up a webcam overlooking construction on the project, but it hasn’t been updated since October 2008, when construction crews stopped work on Margaritaville.
As recently as May 2009, John Payne, president of Harrah’s Central Division, remained publicly committed to the project. But with the economy failing, and Biloxi officials counting on tourism dollars to keep the city moving forward, Harrah’s pulled their money out of the casino.
“Look at Jimmy Buffett’s place,” says former Biloxi mayor Danny Guice. “He had started that, and look what we got…. It’s just idle now.”
Only one thing kept hope alive for the project: the cranes. Harrah’s continued to pay $10,000 per month to keep its construction cranes on the property, almost as a sign that work would one day resume. But earlier this year, the cranes were pulled off site.
“The Margaritaville Casino Resort project in Biloxi is currently on hold,” now reads the official statement on the company’s website. “Harrah’s Entertainment remains committed to the project, but at this time, we do not have a date for when construction will resume. Please check back for further updates.”
But don’t hold your breath.
2. Interstate 10:
Locals in Biloxi speak of Highway 90 with the same reverence that residents on the Eastern seaboard use for Route 1. Both were, once, the main thoroughfares for their coast, especially for tourists headed to the beach.
Both share another trait: they were eventually made obsolete.
For the east coast, I-95 shifted business away from the small towns of Route 1 to the highway. For the Gulf, off-ramp America arrived in the form of Interstate 10.
For the entirety of the Mississippi coast’s history, cities were tied to the water. Highway 90 ran alongside the beaches, and tourist-related businesses built alongside the highway to maximize visibility. But plans for I-10 called for the new interstate to be built parallel to Highway 90, four miles north of the coastline in a then-unincorporated part of the county.
Jerry O’Keefe was mayor of Biloxi in the 1970s when I-10 was just a proposal. His City Hall championed the highway; businesses along HIghway 90 — Beach Boulevard, as it’s called in Harrison County — fought against it. Chief among the opponents was James Love, owner of the Buena Vista Hotel, which was then the convention hotel of choice for the entire state.
“I was so wrong in thinking that we’d still have tourist business down here, which we didn’t. I figured they would come down off of I-10, but they didn’t.”
“He used his political influence to keep I-10 closed as long as he could,” says O’Keefe. “And he and I had many an argument over it, because he was fighting progress — but what happened is, as soon as I-10 opened, the traffic didn’t come down Highway 90 anymore. All these little mom and pops, little motels and hotels went out of business.”
The highway cost Biloxi millions. By the end of the 1980s, five of the city’s hotels were in bankruptcy.
“He was so right and I was so wrong in thinking that we’d still have tourist business down here, which we didn’t,” says O’Keefe. “I figured they would come down off of I-10, but they didn’t.”
The highway meant that tourists had other options. Before, tourists from New Orleans wouldn’t even consider a vacation to the Florida panhandle; the drive down Highway 90 simply took too long. But with I-10, a drive from the Crescent City to the Sunshine State took only four or five hours. Biloxi had new competition — and it couldn’t compete against Florida’s beaches.
That’s how the idea for organized gambling originally came up, says Blessey, the two-term Biloxi mayor. “We needed something that Florida couldn’t do,” he says.
The highway also set off a period of manifest destiny-style annexation among the cities of the Mississippi coast. The cities had never before expanded north, because before I-10 arrived, there wasn’t anything there. Suddenly, land near I-10 became valuable, and each city tried to claim their share of land along the highway.
Biloxi came out the losers of the land-grab. In 1988, the area that had previously been known as North Biloxi declared itself a new city, called D’Iberville, now home to a multi-million dollar shopping center called the Promenade. While Biloxi is still working on plans for a Walmart, D’Iberville’s got theirs — plus a Target, a Best Buy and dozens of chain restaurants. Gulfport, to the west, also has a new shopping district near I-10. Locals are going to either of those cities — not Biloxi — to shop, which is costing Biloxi millions more in lost sales tax revenue.
1. The Vieux Marche:
Hank Smith’s architecture firm, HSBA II, is located in the 800 block of Howard Avenue, on the corner of an area called the Vieux Marche. So it’s with this perspective that Smith can look out the window at the street and declare, with absolute certainty, that “it’s a total failure.”
Blessey calls the Vieux Marche “the worst conceived thing that ever came to Biloxi.” Even Guice, the mayor who green-lit the project 40 years ago, says, “I think it was one of the worst things for our downtown area.”
So what happened? Guice says the plan was simple: after Camille, he wanted to build an anchor for businesses in Biloxi. He says he heard from dozens of out-of-town planners and developers, but one group from Memphis got his attention. They told Guice that they wanted to claim some apartments via eminent domain and turn Howard Avenue into a pedestrian-only mall, with retail stores as its anchor.
“All of our planners highly recommended it, and we went along with it,” Guice says. “They thought it was going to revitalize our business area, they really did.”
But at the same time, Biloxi was building the Edgewater Mall — hundreds of thousands of feet of retail, all ensconced in air conditioning — on the city’s west side. The Vieux Marche was no match. A street that had already been in decline became barren.
By 1981, Blessey says the project was already an obvious failure. But the city couldn’t find the money to do anything with the Vieux Marche.
“I tried to change it,” he says. “I couldn’t get the city council to change it.”
That was 29 years ago. The property is a three-minute walk from the Beau Rivage and Hard Rock casinos, but the Vieux Marche isn’t very high on the city’s to-do list. The million-dollar project from the 1970s has been deemed too expensive to fix in 2010, even though revamping the property could bring residents and businesses back to downtown, and Biloxi needs both.
“The more people who live down here,” Smith says, “the better it is.”
Smith has a plan on the table to radically change the landscape of the Vieux Marche. He’s designed a property that includes a Marriott hotel, retail space, condominiums and senior housing. The plans nearly went to the City Council, and they would have almost certainly approved the plan, but the money behind the project dropped out. Now, Smith is searching for a new backer. He just needs $64 million to build the entire project.
“We’ve gotta find that one investor to build this,” Smith says. “And the truth of the matter is, there’s no money available to lend from the big banks — even though the feasibility is good, the project numbers work — there is no lending institution like there used to be to lend money for a project like this.”
So until the money is found, Smith says, the Vieux Marche will remain, a mistake 40 years in the making. ❑