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VA’s past, future coming together

This is the story of the Mississippi birthday party that never was.

The state made humongous plans to celebrate its 100th birthday with a world’s fair, although they were called “expositions” in those days. This one would be the Mississippi Centennial Exposition.

More than a dozen foreign countries, Uncle Sam, modern manufacturers and many municipalities and states planned exhibits for the sixmonth party.

Attractive Spanish mission buildings were designed and an internationally acclaimed landscape architect hired. The chosen 147-acre site in Gulfport was touted for its waterfront beauty. Dec. 10, 1917, came and went without centennial fanfare. No birthday candles. No bands. No exclamations of the modern marvels such fairs introduced to a world moving far beyond the Industrial Revolution.

Instead, Navy sailors filled the exposition grounds. In a fit of patriotism at America’s entry into World War I, Mississippi had offered its centennial site free to the government.

The eight completed centennial buildings became the Gulfport Naval Training Center, and when the war ended the site became a medical center for military veterans. As new buildings went up, most adhered to the mission architectural style.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and this becomes a story of storm survival and renewal.

Hurricane Katrina badly damaged the Gulfport center of Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System — known locally as “the old VA.” A month after Katrina struck, the Department of Veterans Affairs decided repairs were too costly and did what it had threatened to do for years, close the Gulfport center.

In what could have been a losing situation, Gulfport came out on top when the VA gave the property to the city. As might be expected, heated discussions between residents and city officials centered on what should become of this prized land. The decision: To be developed as a new resort with many of the 19 buildings saved.

The developer, HRI Properties of New Orleans, will receive historic-preservation tax credits for doing the exacting restoration work.

“The VA is quite a landmark for the Mississippi Coast, and it is significant that the city decided to work with firms that will include the historic buildings,” said Ken P’Pool of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, a champion of saving the Coast’s Katrinadamaged architectural heritage.

“Historic buildings like these are going to provide the symbols of stability and continuity and will be a rallying point for revitalization. They are a chapter in the continuum.”

That continuum began in 1912 when the state Legislature did the unusual by favoring the Coast over historically influential Jackson and Natchez. Legislators decided the exposition would be in one of the youngest cities, Gulfport, incorporated only 14 years earlier.

Jealous cities were finally resigned when legislators passed a 1916 bill that named the location. Even before that, Gulfport, Harrison County and the state contributed $125,000 each to a start-up fund, equivalent to $2.6 million each in today’s dollars.

Plans were for 18 centennial buildings, 10 of them permanent because the grounds would later be a park, much like Balboa Park after the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. That California fair was running full steam as Mississippians planned their fair, so organizers studied what worked well there.

Mississippians grew wideeyed at the prospects: San Diego had reported more than doubled bank transactions, populations and building permits. Other local spin-offs became obvious. With all the visitors — estimated to be at least 15,000 a day — plans were finalized for an $800,000 bridge over the Bay of St. Louis. Gov. Theodore Bilbo pushed for a Coast-to-Jackson road to be called the Mississippi Centennial Highway and the feds agreed to match a dollar for every dollar raised for the road now called U.S. 49.

Russia, Italy, Persia, India, Spain and China were among countries committed to exhibits. The Southeast Satsuma Growers planned an orangeshaped building, and that was just the tip of the exhibit iceberg.

This exposition would be both education and entertainment. The coliseum was to seat 5,000, and Chicago and New Orleans entrepreneurs were to bring a carrousel and Ferris wheel. The state approved a new, 63-member National Guard cavalry to encamp on the grounds.

Mississippi’s famous aviatrix, Katherine “Loop-de-loop Girl” Stinson, would fly across the nation, and that, too, was just the tip of the promotion iceberg.

Although many Coast longtimers remember the VA site was to be a birthday exposition, its hugeness and economic spin-offs are long forgotten. Too much has happened since the Party That Never Was.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Mississippi offered the government use of the exposition grounds as proof positive the second state to secede in the Civil War had rejoined the Union.