Downtown Biloxi is still waiting for its baseball boom to happen.
Expectations were high for MGM Park and the Biloxi Shuckers to bring a flurry of development when the city gave the go-ahead to build the stadium in 2014.
There is still hope the $21 million bet will pay off, but no one is sure when. Attendance has fallen far short of projections, and the stadium has not yet been a catalyst for the economic development a marketing study predicted.
“I don’t have an answer whether it’s two years down the line or five years down the line,” said F. Cliff Kirkland, civic innovation and development officer for the city.
“There’s no question there’s more interest, there’s more excitement about downtown. It is paying off in some areas and it’s not in others that we want it to.”
Councilman Felix Gines said in July 2014 the stadium would have a spillover effect, bringing business downtown.
“In this case, we believe the risk is worth the possibility of the returns,” he had said after voting in favor of the $21 million bond issue.
The City Council on Tuesday will consider paying $50,000 to study the creation of a Biloxi Downtown Restoration Plan that would include opening Howard Avenue to two-way traffic through Vieux Marche. In February 2015, the council discussed potential improvements to enhance the downtown experience for visitors, but no action was taken.
Before the stadium was built in 2013, Biloxi paid $25,000 for an economic-impact study by Johnson Consulting of Chicago that said the city should expect 280,000 fans a year to attend the Double-A baseball games. Attendance has fallen far short of that projection — only 180,384 people attended last season. That’s 1,000 fewer fans per game than predicted.
“If it takes off, it’s the greatest thing in the world,” Councilman George Lawrence said in February 2014. “If not, the city’s taxpayers would be left stuck” with the bond payments not covered by a $2-per-ticket surcharge. The city’s agreement with the team waived that surcharge for the first two years unless attendance was above 231,250 each year.
The economic-impact report had anticipated Biloxi to be one of the top-drawing teams in the league.
“Beginning in 2015, average paid attendance at regular season baseball games is projected to be 4,300,” the report said, which was based on the historical average for the Southern League and all of Double-A baseball.
However, average attendance of the 10-team Southern League from 2008 to 2012 — as shown in the report — was only 3,387, though the “top tier” teams drew an average of 4,300.
The report also told the city it should expect additional traffic downtown from a projected 20 non-baseball events a year. Those expectations have not yet been met.
“Moreover,” the Johnson Consulting report predicted, “we are convinced the stadium will serve as an anchor to downtown redevelopment and commence more spending to existing businesses and stimulate new investment in the downtown area.”
In Pearl, just outside Jackson, it took five years before development around that Double-A baseball stadium took off. Trustmark Park opened in 2005, two years before the start of the Great Recession.
“That economic situation just shut down all expansion,” Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers said. “The economy drives it all.”
Twelve years after Trustmark Park was built, the surrounding acres that were once empty are now filled with retail, restaurants and hotels.
“Once we made that turn it all kind of broke loose, and we’ve done very well with it since,” Rogers said.
The extensive retail development around the stadium is a 12-month draw, he said, outpacing baseball, which attracts visitors only during the six-month season.
The Mississippi Braves, who play there, just edged out the Biloxi Shuckers in attendance last year, averaging 2,838 fans to Biloxi’s 2,692. Those are the seventh- and eighth-place figures in the 10-team league. The Birmingham Barons have led the league the last two years with more than 6,000 fans per game.
The Shuckers started this season on a high note, with 3,708 attending their first home game Wednesday. Team owner Ken Young said the team will focus harder this season on bringing more people to games with promotions.
A delicate balance
In January 2014, when the city broke ground on the stadium, Biloxi Community Development Director Jerry Creel said, “Just the rumor of the baseball stadium has brought a lot of interest and phone calls about property in the downtown area.”
That interest has not yet translated into many new businesses.
One thing that has discouraged development is inflated real-estate prices near the stadium, Kirkland said.
There’s a lot of “pricey” property for sale in the area, said Kay Miller of Biloxi Main Street, though some prices, such as for the Barq building, have recently fallen. Miller remains excited about the potential for MGM Park to help spur development downtown.
“If we had a couple of investors come in with lots of money, of course it would happen quickly,” she said. “We’ve just got to find the right investors.”
We’ve definitely seen an increase of restaurant business, which is good,” Kirkland said. “We haven’t seen the arrival yet of retail development downtown.”
The retail industry across the nation has been struggling, too, as online shopping puts brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Bloomberg reported store closings this year have already outpaced those in 2008, the height of the recession.
One plan to jump-start downtown development is to redevelop 4 acres immediately north of the stadium along Howard Avenue, said Tim Bennett of Overtime Sports. It is a concept being jointly considered by Overtime, Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, the city and other developers.
“The perfect model for me is the Ballpark Village in St. Louis,” Bennett said.
Ballpark Village is a three-story complex of restaurants, bars and retail shops, with an adjacent outdoor concert venue.
Chevis Swetman, CEO of Peoples Bank and a dedicated baseball fan, said the city needs to create some incentives, such as tax abatements, to encourage investment in downtown.
The city has a tax-incentive program, but it is handled on a case-by-case basis.
“You don’t want to give away what you don’t have to give away,” Kirkland said. “At the same time, you’re competing against other areas in the mid-South for development and if they’re giving more robust tax incentives, that puts us at a disadvantage.
“It’s a delicate balance that we have to strike.“
Lucy Denton of Rue Vieux LLC, a group that invests in downtown Biloxi property, was interested in mixed-use development in Rue Magnolia just south of Vieux Marche, but “the numbers just didn’t come in” to justify the investment.
Denton said the last advice she got from a Realtor was to wait five years and hope more things pop up around the stadium.
“I still think (the stadium) is a great addition to the city,” she said. “I just think that we haven’t quite grown into it yet.”
“We look at Ocean Springs, we look at Gulfport and we can’t understand why Biloxi can’t get it,” she said, referring to Gulfport’s success in downtown development since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Kirkland also likes the idea of mixed-use development with retail and restaurants downstairs and residential upstairs.
“The developers we’ve brought in to look at downtown quite frankly were amazed that we haven’t seen anything like that down here.”
Both Kirkland and Denton said opening Vieux Marche to two-way traffic is a must to encourage development.
“The stadium itself has done its job in bringing us a quality baseball team that is providing affordable family entertainment, and it’s brought new interest to downtown,” Kirkland said. “So it’s up to us now to take that interest and develop it into something substantial for our city.
“We need something to happen now, this year. We need something else to happen next year, something else to happen the next year. There are a lot of dominoes in place, we’ve got to get them all lined up so they will fall the right way.”
Average attendance per game
Southern League Avg.
Double-A baseball games
Other baseball games
Double-A baseball games
Other baseball games
*Stadium opened after high school and college seasons ended
Source: City of Biloxi and Southern League