Hancock County

New condos, restaurants, residents want in on that Bay St. Louis vibe

Front Street Inn, seen here from a second-floor window of The Blind Tiger restaurant, is under construction in Old Town Bay St. Louis. Business owners say a big attraction in Old Town is the number of restaurants, bars and shops in a small area.
Front Street Inn, seen here from a second-floor window of The Blind Tiger restaurant, is under construction in Old Town Bay St. Louis. Business owners say a big attraction in Old Town is the number of restaurants, bars and shops in a small area. calee@sunherald.com

The next wave of development is hitting the shores of what one businessman claims is the busiest city on the Coast on weekends.

Old Town has that vibe other Coast cities aim to create: a walkable downtown with plenty of residents nearby to fuel sales.

Building designer and developer Chet LeBlanc is adding nine condominiums to the mix along the city’s main drag, North Beach Boulevard, with restaurateur Thomas Genin planning his next big-concept restaurant for the first floor.

Genin said he will open RAW, an oyster bar unlike any in the region, offering oysters from the Gulf and other areas of the country. He’ll also have a convenience store catering to residents and boaters and small liquor store on the first floor of Chet and Charlotte LeBlanc’s Front Street Inn condominiums.

“There’s something about Bay St. Louis,” said LeBlanc, who also built Chapel Hill, the residential development of pastel beach houses that provides the aesthetic anchor for Old Town’s northeast entrance.

The Bay lost population after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but as the storm recedes, residents and businesses are returning to the waterfront. From 2010 through 2015, Census records show, the Bay’s population grew by almost 30 percent.

It doesn’t seem to be slowing down, building inspector Thomas McConnell told the Sun Herald.

“Everybody wants to build on the water — until the next storm hits,” he said, “We’re nonstop.”

“ . . . We’ve been one of the busiest building departments in the state of Mississippi for the last couple of years. One of the big reasons is, we have a bunch of waterfront property. We have all these homes going up because people want to build on the water. Now we’re getting businesses to go with it.”

New restaurants, condos

McConnell said the building department is issuing 20 to 30 permits a month, mostly residential.

The city has more than $4 million in commercial construction in progress, plus a $1.4 million tractor-supply store planned for U.S. 90. HSC Bay St. Louis has a permit to tear down what was once Louise’s Souvenir Shop and is now a decrepit building on the highway.

Also on U.S. 90, a Mexican restaurant is being renovated. It will be called Avocado’s, and you’ll be able to design your own burrito. And a Smoothie King with a drive-thru is being built.

Post-Katrina revitalization is most obvious in the six-block stretch of Old Town overlooking the city’s marina and Bay of St. Louis.

McConnell is awaiting plans for a hotel at Main and North Beach, and more condominiums a block south at Court and South Beach.

Meanwhile, construction is coming along at Dan B. Murphy’s Restaurant & Bar on the waterfront, and the steel frame has been erected for the first floor of LeBlanc’s Front Street Inn.

“I’ve got a list that just keeps on going,” McConnell said.

Genin’s popular restaurant and bar, The Blind Tiger, first opened in the Bay. He recently added a Biloxi location and is preparing to open in Slidell.

Genin also has expansion plans for RAW. The restaurant and bar will have a warehouse feel, with exposed brick walls, concrete floors and steel beams. Oysters will be roasted in a wood-burning oven. He’ll also serve steamed lobster, crabmeat and lobster cocktails, and a big selection of draft beers and mixed drinks.

The convenience store will serve coffee and fresh baked goods. In addition to groceries, the store will sell sunscreen, frozen bait and other marine and beach supplies.

“I know it’s needed,” Genin said.“You’ve got a lot of people who come over for the weekend. They don’t want to get in their car and drive to Wal-Mart if they don’t have to.”

No place busier

LeBlanc said the market for condominiums is strong. The units he is building will face the Bay of St. Louis. One- and two-bedroom condos will range in price from $385,000 to $425,000, he said. They will have off-street parking.

LeBlanc grew up in Biloxi, lived in New Orleans for years, then settled in the Bay.

“We’re the first thing you hit coming from New Orleans,” he said of Bay St. Louis. “That was the attraction for me when I built the houses. There’s a lot here and it’s not expensive to live.” He describes Chapel Hill as a freestanding condominium development.

He said the condo market in the Bay serves New Orleans, Lafayette and Jackson. Owners “want to drop their bags and go.”

He expects Front Street Inn to be finished by October or November.

“It’s really going to be a showcase,” he said. “We’re currently under construction and entertaining offers.”

Genin can’t wait to get in the building and start working on RAW, which he’s been planning for two years. He doesn’t expect the building boom to slow.

“There’s not a busier place on the Mississippi Coast on the weekends than Bay St. Louis. Period,” he said. “There’s so many people that walk around. The foot traffic in Bay St. Louis on the weekends is as good as it gets on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It might be equally busy. But it’s not busier, I guarantee you.

“Bay St. Louis has the density. Everything’s in a very small area and that’s what people like. That’s what Bay St. Louis has going for it. And then you have a marina that fits right in front of that.”