GULFPORT -- Commerce once seemed to be Gulfport's domain, while neighboring Biloxi was better known as a playground for tourists.
But Hurricane Katrina changed all that. Gulfport invested millions in federal recovery money to build a new harbor and give its aging downtown a facelift, creating buzz as it added attractions such as a computerized Christmas light show.
The city's momentum as a tourist destination continues to build.
On Thursday, Gulfport will open its first tourist-centric visitors center on U.S. 90 at historic Grass Lawn.
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"I think we're a huge tourist destination," Economic Development Director David Parker said. "We've never had a center like this. This is our opportunity to really highlight the tourism aspect of our economy and all we have to offer and, hopefully, increase visits to all our attractions.
"If someone visits Gulfport and they realize all we have to offer, then they're going to return. We have so much, it's hard to do it all in one trip. We think that's the ultimate payoff of the visitors center -- to create return visitors."
The Gulfport Visitors Center will be in the front room of Grass Lawn's annex building. It will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays by two part-time workers and volunteers.
The employees, knowledgeable Gulfport residents Merlissia Lewis and Wynell Grisham, were training Tuesday at Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Coast's tourism agency. Parker said the VMGC has been helpful in setting up the center, donating some furniture and helping to stock the brochure rack.
Signs on the highway and property will direct visitors to the center.
Inside, they'll find information on all things Gulfport: the sportsplex where ball tournaments are held, Island View Casino Resort, the showcase harbor and Jones Park, historic downtown, the Gulfport Galleria of Fine Arts in the old Carnegie Library, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center for children, Gulf Islands Water Park, restaurants, hotels and more.
Attractions the city plans to add include Fishbone Alley and the Mississippi Aquarium downtown, plus shopping, a hotel, offices and public square at the old VA property on U.S. 90 now known as Centennial Plaza.
As Mayor Billy Hewes said when he took office in 2013: "Gulfport is open for business and geared for a good time."