Harrison County

Biloxi working on plan to make next spring break smoother

A host of spring breakers cross U. S. 90 to get to the Coliseum during spring break weekend on April 8. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic was jammed as a crowd of 60,000 to 70,000 people poured in to a three-block area of the beach.
A host of spring breakers cross U. S. 90 to get to the Coliseum during spring break weekend on April 8. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic was jammed as a crowd of 60,000 to 70,000 people poured in to a three-block area of the beach. ttisbell@sunherald.com

City officials are looking at ways to improve traffic flow, crowd control and safety during spring break and other major events near the beach after Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich vowed Tuesday there will not be a repeat of what happened during this year’s spring break.

April 7-9 brought an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people to Biloxi — more than double the 2016 attendance — and raised questions of whether the event has grown too large for the location. It was “far from safe, friendly and beautiful” for residents and visitors, said Gilich, who frequently uses “safe, friendly and beautiful” as his goals for Biloxi.

Biloxi doesn’t officially host the event, but spring break has been held in the city on and off since 2000.

“We have already had a call from one of the promoters,” said Mike Leonard, Biloxi’s chief administrative officer. “We know they’re coming back. They already scheduled it.”

Matt McDonnell, executive director of the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, said he doesn’t yet have signed contracts but he has agreed to save the weekend of April 13-15 for next year’s spring break events. He’s worked with one of the concert promoters for three consecutive years and one for four years, and said, “They’re both local gentlemen.”

Better communication between the city, the promoters and the Coliseum staff is one of Biloxi’s goals for next year, although McDonnell says he already communicates with Biloxi police for months leading up to spring break.

Other ideas Leonard said the city is considering:

▪  Better emergency access for police, ambulance and other first responders.

Traffic was so congested, it took drivers four hours at times to get the few blocks from Edgewater Mall to the Coast Coliseum. He said residents were concerned about their safety in the event of illness or a fire.

“That has got to change. We can’t have that,” Leonard said. In 2001, two lanes of U.S. 90 were closed to all but emergency traffic.

▪  Finding more parking, perhaps paid parking at the former Broadwater site and other private locations along the beach that charge for parking during Cruisin’ The Coast.

▪  Finding access for communities along U.S. 90 that have only one entrance, which is blocked during spring break.

▪  Traffic control. Gilich mentioned as an example the busy Santa Monica Freeway in California, where vehicles coming onto the freeway are stopped to let traffic flow before more cars are allowed to enter the road.

▪  DUI checkpoints to let people know drinking and driving will not be tolerated.

▪  More police officers and security hired to help with traffic and crowd control.

▪  Possibly an ordinance to restrict the hours of restaurants and other establishments that now have loud entertainment well into the early morning.

▪  Requiring a bond for promoters of spring break events to help pay for the cleanup. Although the concerts and food vendors were at the Coliseum, Leonard said the trash spills out across the beach.

▪ Improve spread of information on social media ahead of next year’s spring break so those coming know what to expect.

After the city decides how to proceed, “We’re going to use Cruisin’ The Coast to try things out,” he said.

A communication campaign would be good for both the city and the promoters, said Biloxi Councilman Felix Gines, but as a city Biloxi shouldn’t give the wrong message, he said.

“Tourism is our economy,” he said, and Biloxi as a destination needs to put out the welcome mat. He suggested establishing a committee of Coast law enforcement and other key people who can devise a plan to make the event safe and successful.

South Mississippi has an action plan for Cruisin’ The Coast and Mardi Gras, and he said, “With spring break, it appears that we did not put enough of a strategic plan in place.”

Putting 60,000 people in the three-block area from the mall to the Coliseum is not feasible, Gines said.

“We need to stretch the crowd out,” with events from Jones Park in Gulfport to the Biloxi Lighthouse or beyond. “We have 26 miles of beach. We need to use it,” he said.

McDonnell estimated about 25,000 people were on the Coliseum property over the weekend of April 7-9, with 2,200 people attending the Friday-night concert, about 11,000 people on the grounds Saturday, and 10,800 at Saturday night’s concert.

His biggest issue was getting traffic off U.S. 90 and into the parking lot with so many people walking from the beach to the vendors selling food on the Coliseum grounds. Having enough bandwidth to handle the crowds that were texting, emailing and streaming video and music became an issue when they also wanted to access their concert tickets sent to their cellphones. Spring breakers in Biloxi used that electronic ticketing service more than for just about any other event Ticketmaster has in the region, he said.

“It’s not an easy event to work,” said McDonnell, whose key staff members worked 39 hours over spring break weekend.

“That’s what it took to manage these kind of crowds,” he said. “I don’t think anybody, anybody thought it would swell to the numbers they did this year.”