Tradition in the Making.

Tradition is an unusual promise for the Gulf Coast. It could support 15,500 homes, 35,000 people and 5,000 new jobs. This unincorporated piece of land out in Harrison County might turn into one of the biggest cities on the coast. Except right now, it’s not much to see.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 23, 2010

Joe Rocconi likes his new neighborhood. It’s quiet, yes, and it should be: here in the town of Tradition, Miss., there are 48,000 acres of property, and just 20 homes. Rocconi is the head football coach at newly-rebuilt, just-around-the-corner St. Patrick’s High School, and it should be noted that Rocconi, yes, is very much real.

Two doors down from Rocconi, there is a yellow home with white trim and white columns, and two white rocking chairs on the porch. There is an American flag that needs untangling out front. Inside, there are books in the master bedroom: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Sam Walton’s “Made in America” and Jimmy Buffett’s “A Salty Piece of Land.” There are family photos: a dad tossing his son into the air, the son’s head out of frame; a little girl and her mother biking along a beach with water too blue for the Mississippi coast. The little girl’s name is Alexa. She has posters with her name on them, scented candles monogrammed with the letter A and a piggy bank. There are white index cards marked with black Sharpie on her dresser. “When I grow up, I want to be: A veterinarian. A zoologist. An animal trainer,” one says. “Fish are friends not food,” reads another. Alexa is a vegetarian.

Alexa, it should be noted, is also not real.

For now, this is what passes for a neighborhood at Tradition: real families, like the Rocconis, and fake families and their model homes alongside them. Add streetcars and theme music and you’d have the opening credits to “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” Potential home-buyers walk through Tradition’s model homes, past Alexa’s room and the Walmart biographies. This is your life — would you like to join the living?

Tradition is an unusual promise for the Gulf Coast: it’s a massive development that could bring thousands of residents and millions of dollars back to the area. It’s been in the works since 1994; the first residents moved in two years ago this month.

It could support 15,500 homes, 35,000 people and 5,000 new jobs — if it all comes together. It’s 50 miles of hiking trails, and miles more of sidewalks that might turn this unincorporated piece of land out in Harrison County into one of the biggest cities on the coast. It’s a piece of new urbanism sprouting up in the suburbs of Biloxi and Gulfport.

But — and not to give Kevin Costner too much credit here — It’s also a cheesy 80s movie line turning from statement into question: If they build it, will they come?

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Gerald Blessey, the former mayor with the vision behind Tradition.

Gerald Blessey, the former Biloxi mayor with the vision behind Tradition.

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Gerald Blessey is a man of many business cards. He’s the president of Tradition, a community that promises to be “Your new hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” He’s also the Gulf Coast housing director for the state, the post-Katrina housing czar appointed by Governor Haley Barbour to get locals back into their homes in their original hometown on the Gulf Coast. So on a daily basis, Blessey’s dealing with either locals living in FEMA cottages or locals interested in buying multi-thousand-square-foot homes a few minutes inland.

But what Blessey’s best at is spotting a good plan. He served as mayor of Biloxi from 1981 to 1989, a period in which the city transitioned from post-Hurricane Camille rebuilding to mid-90s booming. In ’83, Blessey went on a tour of Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore, and came away inspired. Some 15 months later, after holding town hall meetings and open forums, he had a plan for the east Biloxi-based Point Cadet marina and waterfront. Five years later, Blessey fought for legalized offshore gambling, and won. The marina became the launching point for both the casino boats and the era of Biloxi as the gambling hub of the South. The casinos are keeping post-Katrina Biloxi alive, and everyone from politicians to preachers has told Stry that it’s Gerald Blessey — the father of gaming — that they have to thank for that.

Now that Blessey’s job with the state is coming to a close [1], he says it’s time to focus on an old plan. Tradition is the genius of Joseph C. Canizaro, a New Orleans businessman whose name rarely appears in print without the tagline “real estate mogul.” Plans started on Tradition 16 years ago. The development was officially announced in 1999.

Blessey grew up in Biloxi, and remembers when there was a grocery store and a bar on every corner. But city zoning laws eventually did away with those mixed-used neighborhoods. The town of Tradition, he says, was planned on the new urbanist idea that an area should be zoned “based on form, not use.” What that means is that as long as the structure of the building fits the landscape, it doesn’t really matter whether there’s a home or an office or a 7-Eleven inside.

“What I’m really trying to do with Tradition is recapture what I thought was a pedestrian-friendly, family-friendly, enjoyable human habitat that I grew up in,” he says.

In theory, this property should be easy to sell. Tradition has been planned on and partially planned by the same team that created the Woodlands, a “master-planned community” built in the suburbs of Houston in the 1970s. The Woodlands, as of the 2000 Census, had nearly 16,000 owner-occupied homes and 61,000 residents, as well as a downtown, golf courses and several schools. According to a Woodlands press release, in 2009, the community supported over 45,000 jobs.

That’s the model for what’s happening at Tradition. To get there, Blessey’s team is working with nine different builders, each with unique homes for sale. Tradition is located about 15 minutes north of the coast, so the homes aren’t subject to the building codes required in coastal flood zones. Construction on new homes doesn’t start until a family picks a model and decides to move in, so buyers have time to offer input into any custom features that they’d like in their house.

There’s also the brand-new high school, St. Patrick’s, just a two-minute drive down the road, and the brand-new campus of William Carey College, located along the water in Gulfport until Katrina forced a move. The first convenience store opened on the Tradition property last week, and there are plans for a downtown with retail and office space, Blessey says.

“I have this romantic notion of restoring a great place to live,” he says, “instead of the post-World War II, automobile-inspired subdivision.”

Rocconi — the St. Patrick’s football coach who took one of Tradition-created jobs — says he and his wife saw the plans for Tradition and “fell in love with the neighborhood.”

“We just liked the style of the homes,,” he says. “It’s kind of a quiet neighborhood and community…. [It] was a plus for us, to get in on the beginning states, because we believe that it’s going to take off.”

But Rocconi and his wife are among the mere dozens of people who currently live in Tradition. There are thousands of plots of land left on the property, and they are selling slowly.

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One of the model homes on sale at Tradition.

One of Tradition’s model homes. This one, called “The Shearwater,” offers three bedrooms and two baths, and it’s selling for a market price of $164,000.

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For Brynn Joachim, vice president of sales and marketing at Tradition, “Katrina was a blessing and a curse.” Out of the storm came a silver lining for her property: suddenly, thousands of residents on the coast needed a place to live, and Tradition was ready to enter the housing market. In the months after the storm, she says 92 families placed reservations on Tradition homes.

But the storm also wiped out the coast’s construction industry. Building materials became scarce, and the costs to build skyrocketed. Tradition had home buyers, but the development did not have enough home builders to match.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep pace with demand,” Joachim says.

Then came the recession, and with it tighter lending standards and higher construction costs. Now, Joachim says she’s hoping to sell 25 homes this year, and maybe 55 or 60 next year.

Tradition is waiting for its tipping point, Joachim says. Plans call for 15,500 homes on this property — so only 15,455 left to build and sell, assuming 2010 sales go as expected. Maybe business will come from locals looking for a new community, or northerners looking for a vacation home, but Joachim believes that eventually, her property will start selling. Even an established community like the Woodlands took time to grow into itself. The neighborhood had about 40,000 residents in 1995, according to a Woodlands press release. By 2000, an additional 20,000 people had moved in. The developer behind the community is predicting growth to hit 110,000 residents by 2014.

Blessey knows that until that tipping point arrives, the only thing Tradition can do is be patient. “There are no silver bullets,” he says.

His eight years as mayor of Biloxi offer some lessons for his new project, but now he’s working with city planning on a very different scale. A city like Biloxi has existed for three centuries, and the local government’s role is to help push the city forward. With Tradition, he’s taken a community from petri dish to reality in less than two decades.

Both towns have offered unique challenges; neither has grown as quickly as Blessey had hoped. Blessey says at this point, he’s not sure which project’s been more challenging: the rebuilding of Biloxi or the overall construction of Tradition.

“You’re really going to have to ask me in 10 years,” he says, “because we have to see if we are able to build a new city” at Tradition. ❏