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Centennial Plaza’s grand opening is almost here. Here’s an inside look.

The transformation of Centennial Plaza from an abandoned VA hospital into a beachfront destination resort is ready for its big reveal.

It officially opens to the public Monday, Aug. 5, and aims to be a place for community celebrations, weddings and events. The Blue Marlin seafood restaurant already is open to the public.

Lodging & Leisure Investments, in partnership with Virginia attorney Robert Lubin, spent more than $100 million to restore 10 buildings. They added one new building — a hotel check-in office with the same Spanish architecture to blend with the rest of the buildings.

There’s no other resort like this in Mississippi, says Carole Lynn Meadows, chairman of the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission. “It’s just going to make us even more of a destination resort area,” she said, especially when the nearby Mississippi Aquarium opens in downtown Gulfport in about 6 months.

Construction began a year ago and started with repairing crumbling walls in long-empty buildings. Now the buildings look much like they did when they were built about 100 years ago, with new multi-pane windows that look like the originals, new tile roofs, stucco and paint.

While the outside is traditional, the interiors of the hotels and restaurants are finished in clean, modern style, with touches of beachy seafoam green and blue. The decor is casual enough for a resort hotel and stylish enough — with touches of marble and brick and distinctive lighting and art — to be a place to celebrate special occasions.

Branching the old and the new are centuries-old Live oak trees throughout the 48-acre site, along with a staff of more than 300, said Cono Caranna with Lodging & Leisure.

The tour

The resort is designed for visitors and locals, families and business travelers, Caranna said.

Two hotels share a water playground, which is open seasonally and reserved for hotel guests. Several eateries and bars along with the grounds are open to the public.

The resort has its own wedding chapel, a park under the trees for special events or a family picnic, and a massive fountain with colorful lights and jets choreographed to music.

Among the amenities are:

Oasis Resort Gulfport is a 152-room hotel designed for families. Located on the west side of the resort, it sprawls over two buildings. Oasis Grill is in the north building, and the lobby of the south building looks directly out onto the pool. One style of guest rooms is a family suite equipped with one king bed and bunk beds for the kids. Oasis is the same brand Lodging & Leisure plans for the new hotel tower at Margaritaville Resort Biloxi.

Grand Centennial Hotel is a relaxed, boutique-style hotel with 63 rooms in two buildings, connected by a garden courtyard. It’s on the north side of the resort, just beyond the fountain. The Wine Bar takes up a good portion of the first floor, and 90 percent of the guest rooms are king rooms, catering to adults.

Water playground — A porch swing at the Oasis Resort and dozens of lounge chairs overlook the spread of swimming pool, splash pad, 15 water slides and lazy river. Tipping buckets in the 13,000-square-foot splash pad look like a banana and pineapple and pour water on swimmers below. Two curling water slides provide entry to the 950-foot lazy river, or those who want a little more relaxation can step onto an inner tube at several places along the route and make a stop at the walk-up, swim-up, tube-up bar in the center of the pool.

Restaurants — The resort opens with three restaurants along with in-room and poolside dining. The Blue Marlin seafood restaurant and bar at the south side of the resort has dining porches with views of the beach and the fountain. Inside are touches of cool elegance with crisp tablecloths and two semi-private nooks with brick floors and water views. The Oasis Grill will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a coffee bar and juice bar. The Wine Bar in the Grand Centennial will open for breakfast and have a tapas menu the rest of the day.

The Chapel that is original to Centennial Plaza was restored and will host its first wedding on Aug. 3. The walls are the original brick and chandeliers, and drapes of white fabric add romance to the venue that seats about 250. The Chapel has a catering kitchen, separate bride’s and groom’s rooms and a swing to display the cake. A couple can also get married on the porch of the chapel and come inside for the reception, Caranna said. “You can get married on the island,” he said, with the beach as a backdrop. The ceremony can be on the landscaped lawn near the fountain and the reception under a tent or in one of the private meeting rooms.

Still to come — While the exterior of the buildings are restored, some are yet to be completed and will be filled with more amenities and guest rooms, Caranna said. Planned for next year is Adventures Entertainment Center, with 15,000 square feet of arcade and a restaurant serving burgers, pizza and other family fare. “It will give families something to do when it’s raining and at night,” Caranna said.

Events — The east side of Centennial Plaza with its canopy of live oaks will be the spot for community events starting with Chillin On The Gulf Coast Sept. 20 - 22. Thousands of antique and classic cars will park under the trees and pass through the Plaza as it again serves as Cruise Central for Cruisin’ The Coast, Oct. 6-13.

An Oasis at the beach

Centennial Plaza was built to host the celebration for the 100th anniversary of Mississippi statehood, but the 1917 celebration was canceled because of World War I. A few of the buildings were in good enough shape to use when the bicentennial celebration was held there in 2017.

The buildings were dinged but not destroyed by time or Hurricane Katrina.

“Nothing was damaged. It just flooded,” Caranna said. The federal government signed over the property to Gulfport after Katrina and Gulfport Development Commission was formed in 2008 to find a developer for the property.

“We got the property in the teeth of the recession,” said Meadows. “It took time for this reason alone.”

It also took time to find a developer with not only the money but the vision to make the property exceptional. Greg Stewart and his staff with Lodging & Leisure, the parent company of Barrington Development, had those qualities, she said.

Because the buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the exteriors had to remain the same. That was a negative to some of the developers, she said. “Not to Greg. He made it a positive,” she said.

Just as Lodging & Leisure restored the abandoned White House Hotel in Biloxi with “vision, taste and class,” she said the company treated the restoration of Centennial Plaza.

An expert from University of Southern Mississippi walked the grounds with the developer and inspected the hundreds of trees to see what each needed. “Every tree,” Meadows said.

The Oasis is a perfect name for the hotel that once was envisioned as a Holiday Inn, she said.

“When you drive onto the property it’s like you left the rest of the world behind,” she said. “You feel like you’ve stepped into something really special. It fits in Gulfport,” she said, “Just like the Markham is going to fit in Gulfport. It’s that kind of feel.”

Lodging & Leisure also is restoring historic Markham Hotel in downtown Gulfport and the former Santa Maria in downtown Biloxi into new hotels.

Centennial Plaza phone number: 228-206-7880

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Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.
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