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How can the Coast bring 2 million more visitors a year? Mayors reach out to tourism agency

Early morning light in Biloxi near the Beau Rivage. Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast has a new director starting in January, and the agency wants to bring an additional 2 million visitors to the Coast per year.
Early morning light in Biloxi near the Beau Rivage. Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast has a new director starting in January, and the agency wants to bring an additional 2 million visitors to the Coast per year. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com file

Jan. 8 is the first day on the job for Milton Segarra, the new director of Coast tourism, but two Coast mayors went to Thursday’s meeting of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast is hopes of meeting him.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said it was the first time he’s attended a meeting of the tourism agency at the Coast Convention Center, and he invited Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes to come, too.

They weren’t there to cause a stir, Gilich said, but to see how the two cities can work with Visit MS Gulf Coast to bring more tourists to South Mississippi.

The goal is to 2 million more visitors a year — a big goal, Gilich admitted. That’s why he said he wants to understand how the tourism agency, which represents the three Coast counties, operates and if the cities can help them do better.

“Biloxi and Gulfport together represent a big opportunity,” he said, and both mayors want to make sure everything is being done to make the best use of the money generated by the cities’ thousands of hotel rooms.

Behind the scenes, Biloxi sent letters and requests for information on Dec. 10 to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and Visit MS Gulf Coast. The city asked for information on how the 5 percent tax on hotel rooms, which is the major funding source for Visit MS Gulf Coast, and other revenue are collected. Once the information is provided, the letters said, Biloxi’s Innovation Team wants to meet with both boards to discuss ideas for “major tourism development.”

David Parker's vision turns alley into place for food, art and music.

On the innovation team are city attorneys Peter Abide and Gerald Blessey, along with Mike Leonard, chief administrative officer, and Cliff Kirkland, Biloxi’s civic innovation and development officer.

Hewes said he is looking for an opportunity to collaborate and bring more tourists to the Coast.

“The sale is easy when you get people here,” he said, but there are things Coast leaders need to do every day to get visitors the first time. For Gulfport, a Lifetime movie “Christmas in Mississippi” filmed in the city during the summer required some expense to install the lights out of season, he said, but the movie was seen by more than 1 million people nationwide on the first broadcast.

The mayors said the timing is right to looking for ways to work together since the new head of Coast tourism will start in his job in two weeks.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the new director. Everything I’m hearing is very positive,” Gilich said.

Segarra led the tourism promotion agency for Puerto Rico before he was hired to lead Coast tourism. He immediately will go to work, said Bill Holmes, president of Visit MS Gulf Coast, attending the Coast Legislative Reception in Jackson on Jan. 11, just after he starts his new job. Business leaders from across the Coast are expected to attend to talk to state Legislatures about using BP settlement money on the Gulf Coast.

Segarra will meet before the event with Craig Ray, state tourism director, said Rich Westfall, a board member for Visit MS Gulf Coast.

“He wants to meet the movers and shakers in each community,” said Holmes. He appointed a committee headed by LuAnn Pappas, chief executive officer of Scarlet Pearl Casino, to plan a reception to introduce Segarra to Coast elected officials and business leaders shortly after he arrives.

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