Harrison County

Can Biloxi recreate its golden age of seafood? Mayor and some councilmen say yes

Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich laid out his plans Tuesday for a “genuine waterfront experience” at Point Cadet complete with an oyster aquaculture center, an oyster dock, a pavilion to host deep sea fishing tournaments and a seafood marketplace.

By a 6-1 vote the Biloxi Council agreed to ask the state Legislature to approve the plan and allow Biloxi to use bonds and a portion of the rent collected on the property to help pay for construction of the facilities.

Now Gilich will head to the Coast Legislative Reception in Jackson on Jan. 10 with the signed resolution in hand and determination to recreate the authentic working waterfront of East Biloxi. That opportunity to speak directly with Legislators from around the state is why the resolution needed to push immediately through the council, Gilich said.

“We’re asking for your trust and your full support,” he told the council. Once the legislators approves the resolution — and the mayor said he’s confident they will — the council members can decide exactly what they want in the project, he said. He envisions more than a million visitors will come a year, Gilich said.

Councilman George Lawrence cast the lone vote against the plan, saying he is most concerned about basing the attraction on oysters that were part of Biloxi’s past and have a very limited season.

The plan calls for building a dock to allow oystermen to unload their catch for free.

Most of South Mississippi’s oyster industry now is based in Pass Christian.

The season in the Biloxi Bay lasted only four days in 2017, said Melissa Scallan with the Department of Marine Resources. Only one of two reefs was open to let the oyster population grow and only to tonging, she said. Oystering in Biloxi Bay was allowed for the first time in 50 years in 2016, she said.

DMR is working to develop oyster aquaculture south of Deer Island that could benefit from the oyster dock.

Other parts of the plan also may need more consideration. Gilich described being able to eat oysters fresh from the dock.

“We have a department that deals with seafood safety,” Scallan said, along with federal and state rules that must be met. DMR and the state Health Department also would regulate a seafood marketplace that may or not be allowed outdoors in the summer.

Lawrence said that area of Point Cadet is prime land near casinos and needs to have “high end, big entertainment.”

A non-compete clause in the city’s lease with Golden Nugget means a casino can’t be built there, Gilich told him.

Councilman Kenny Glavan said he had concerns over the financing of the project but said people are asking for authentic experiences when they travel.

Other places provide these type of experiences, said Mike Leonard, Biloxi’s chief administrative officer, who described eating fresh lobster on the waterfront in Maine.

Can Biloxi be like...

Several attractions that take advantage of the waterfront on the Gulf Coast were cited during the meeting. They are:

▪ Pleasure Pier in Galveston, Texas, is owned by Tilman Fertitta, who also owns Golden Nugget Casino on Point Cadet in Biloxi. Pleasure Pier has rides, midway games and a variety of restaurants and shops.

▪ Pier 21 in Galveston has views of Galveston’s working harbor, cruise ships, shrimp boats and tug boats at work along with restaurants and a hotel.

▪ The Wharf at Orange Beach, Alabama, has shops, dining, night life and entertainment.

▪ Destin Harbor Boardwalk in Destin, Florida, stretches about a quarter-mile along the Destin Harbor and has landscaping, lighting and seating. Several property owners along the harbor participated in the project to add continuity and access to fishing charter boats, restaurants and water activities.

Three of those were built by private developers, and a public and private partnership got Destin’s Boardwalk built. .

Biloxi proposes is the city rather than developers will build the facilities with a bond and a portion of the rent from the site

Biloxi would either operate the attraction or sign an agreement with DMR, IHL, USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, a private business or a nonprofit.

Repeating the past

Not mentioned at the meeting were attractions like GulfQuest Maritime Museum in Mobile, a $60 million venture between the city and private investors that closed just a year after it opened for lack of visitors and funds.

Also to consider is the 26-foot storm surge on Point Cadet during Hurricane Katrina that wiped away the J. L. Scott Aquarium and Marine Education Center and everything else on the site.

Legislative approval is needed because one-third of the property is owned by the city, one-third by the state and one-third by the State Institutions of Higher Learning on behalf of the University of Southern Mississippi and the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory that operated the aquarium on the site before it was destroyed by Katrina in 2005.

Gerald Blessey, former mayor and now an attorney for the city, said Gov. Phil Bryant is interested in providing money to upgrade the adjacent marina, and the Department of Marine Resources has provided a $75,000 grant for the engineering and design of the new attractions.

While Gilich and Blessey fondly talk about recreating Biloxi’s past, Councilman Robert Deming III said he wasn’t born when seafood was king in Biloxi and instead was brought up to make money inside buildings. Deming said he has no way to know if what is being proposed will generate income long-term.

City attorney Peter Abide said for the last 12 years since Katrina, Biloxi has been coming up with new projects for the vacant site while the other two owners sit back and collect two-thirds of the rent.

This plan, he said, is an incentive “to try to get them to see our vision and try to move along with us.” Profits would be split between the three owners.

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