What will it take to make Howard Avenue great again?
Most everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s Biloxi Council meeting said they were excited about the prospects for
The District on Howard, a $54 million housing, entertainment and retail project downtown.
Developer Lee Young painted a picture of 330 apartments, some with balconies overlooking the street, a small gourmet grocery where residents can shop, additional stores, new restaurants, breweries and music venues.
Dropping the big names, he said they’ve had “great interest” in the project from House of Blues, Emeril’s and Cafe du Monde.
The District, “The likes of which we have not seen in a very, very long time,” he said, will generate jobs and revitalize downtown.
Young, who grew up in Pascagoula, said the developers purchased or have the option to buy five buildings on Howard Avenue, just around the corner from the Saenger Theater. Crews already pulled down the mustard-color vertical siding, revealing the brick on the Barq building that’s been hidden since Urban Renewal came to Biloxi in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“We hope to start construction by summer,” he said Tuesday. Work will start at the the Barq building, where he said they’ve determined another story can be added along with 30 more apartments, and the Kress building that was restored and opened in 2014 as Kress Live before closing two years later.
After that comes the former Woolworth building, where the art deco exterior is gone. This block-long stretch of buildings is on the north side. On the south side of Howard, the developers will restore the Gryder Shoes building and build on the empty lot where a 2011 fire leveled Upstairs Downstairs Lounge, he said.
Thumbs up and down
“I’m excited for Biloxi. That’s why I’m here,” Sabrina Stallworth said during citizens’ comments at the council meeting. “Downtown Biloxi needs revitalization and life.”
Decades ago family-run stores and restaurants lined Howard Avenue. Stallworth said she hopes there will be room, and some financing available, for small businesses to fit in this project so she can open a retail store and offer classes in leather making and beading.
Jerome Harper of Water Street was the only citizen who questioned Biloxi committing tax incentives and said the developer is asking the city to insure the profitability of the project.
“Why Biloxi? Why are people going to move here?” he asked, and said the plan doesn’t address how every community on the Coast is proposing the same thing.
Downtown city tours
“Mr. Young is giving us 54 million reasons to do this,” countered Kevin Felsher, chairman of Biloxi’s Architecural and Historical Review Commission. “Who else is coming up with $54 million to invest in our city?” he asked.
While other Coast cities have cabinets full of renderings and plans for major development in their downtowns, the big investments have been mostly in Gulfport and Biloxi in the last few years. Here’s what’s happening across the Coast:
▪ Gulfport has seen a resurgence of restaurants in the downtown since Hurricane Katrina, but little housing has returned to that area to support the restaurants and few new shops have opened. City officials are counting on the $93 million Mississippi Aquarium to attract business and people downtown when it opens late this year or early in 2020 along with the $30 million renovation the old Markham building into a hotel, Hyatt Place at the Markham.
▪ D’Iberville has long planned for a French Market plus apartments and condos in the area between Scarlet Pearl Casino and the businesses on Central Avenue to create a walkable downtown. It was conceived during the charrettes following Hurricane Katrina and is still talked about.
▪ Ocean Springs has seen a boom in construction throughout the city over the last year, led by The Inlet, a mixed-use project that will open this spring and bring 95 new condos, a restaurant that is new to the Coast and three retail spaces. It’s more than a mile from downtown on U.S. 90. New restaurants are under construction on Washington Avenue and Government Street, but a hotel in downtown is still a goal.
▪ Pass Christian has a couple of new hotels and, like Ocean Springs, the development is spread out rather than concentrated in downtown. The city has seen some success in attracting new shops.
▪ Pascagoula has 29 condos going up at Courtyard at City Dock and more housing and downtown development are planned. A $68 million contact to rebuild the west shipyard at Ingalls Shipyard could bring a big boost.
▪ Gautier city leaders planned to create a downtown, but those plans were shelved when Walmart pulled out of plans to build at the site of the former Singing River Mall.
▪ Bay St. Louis has a walkable downtown and housing close to the many new restaurants, but is nearly maxed out on commercial space near the waterfront.
▪ Long Beach and Diamondhead have an abundance of housing. Both cities are pursuing a casino to bring much-needed revenue and diversify their economies.
▪ Moss Point rebuilt City Hall near the waterfront in downtown after Hurricane Katrina, but like other cities the plans for a safer main street and more walkable downtown never were funded.
▪ Waveland was hard-hit by Katrina and the city’s “downtown” is primarily the mini shopping centers and businesses along U.S. 90
A year ago when Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich delivered his State of the City address, he talked about restoring Howard Avenue back to two-way traffic, about partnering with business investors and building a thriving downtown again.
When he gives the speech again on Tuesday , he’ll be able to point to how Howard Avenue was rebuilt into a two-way street complete with brick pavers, sidewalks and parking. He can talk about how the eyesore Federal Building is down and a new Community Bank will soon take its place. And he can tell how developers are indeed investing in his vision for downtown.
“It is truly exciting,” he said. “It’s for real.”
The location of The District has the makings for success, the company website touts. It’s just one block off the beach, within walking distance of two casinos, close to MGM Park and Saenger Theater and in the shadow of Merit hospital. Two new hotels will open downtown this year and the Magnolia hotel that now houses the Mardi Gras Museum will get repurposed.
Besides the apartments, entertainment and shopping, Young said 20,000 square feet of office space is proposed at The District, bringing more life and potential customers downtown.
It takes more than plans and dreams to get these types of investment, many Coast cities have learned. Without the tax incentives approved by the city on Tuesday, Young said there was “zero” chance the District would be built in Biloxi.
Mississippi Development Authority now must approve the plan to return a larger share of sales tax generated by the project to help pay for the development.
“We’re not asking for anything unless we produce for the city,” Young said.