Harrison County

Duct tape isn’t enough to hold the Saenger together. And the feds pulled the funds to fix it.

The roof leaks and duct tape literally holds together some of the crumbling plaster walls, but now the city has to find another way to pay for restoration of the historic Saenger Theater.

Biloxi’s been notified that improvements to the Saenger Theater are not eligible for funding under Community Development Block Grant guidelines. The $700,000 the city expected to receive to start renovations of the exterior must be reallocated to another project.

“We don’t want to take the chance of losing the money all together,” said Mike Leonard, Biloxi’s chief administrative officer. Biloxi submitted a substitute project to use the grant for the connector roads that will need to be built to close several railroad crossings where accidents have occurred in East Biloxi, he said.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich is insistent that, if at all possible, the Saenger restoration and returning Howard Avenue to a two-way street will happen, Leonard said.

Dale Partners is nearly done with the design and engineering work for the first phase of repairs to the theater at the corner of Howard Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown Biloxi. The work includes replacement of the roof and the rooftop air conditioning units, repairs to the entrance awnings, waterproofing of the exterior brick walls and ADA access improvements.

Leonard said the project is expected to be ready to bid in the spring. Construction could begin about June.

Vincent Creel, the city’s public affairs director, said the Biloxi Civic Center would be offered to groups as an alternative site while the Saenger closes for six to nine months for this initial work.

Just how the city will pay for the work is still to be determined. Leonard said the capital projects budget will have to be juggled and he compared the process to looking into a crystal ball that is more like a snowglobe with projects floating around. Once he sees how high bids come in on these projects and the “snow” settles, Leonard said he’ll know better where things stand.

Among the projects estimates are about $2 million for water service at Woolmarket Plantation and the Larkin area in Woolmarket, and more than $1 million for the Howard Avenue widening and for a fire station that he said is not yet ready to bid.

The Housing and Urban Development field office in Jackson first indicated that the Saenger Theater and Community Center did not meet the low- and moderate-income area benefit required for a CDBG grant, Leonard said, and the HUD headquarters in Washington agreed.

While the Saenger is located in an eligible neighborhood and is used for voting and free for use by some community groups, it also hosts symphony performances and other events that made HUD question whether it benefits low-income residents, Creel said.

The Saenger is on the National Register of Historic Places. A Mississippi Department of Archives and History grant was leveraged with the CDBG grant. Biloxi is looking for additional federal, state and private foundation grants to fund rehabilitation of the interior of the theater.

In 2014, Rafe O’Neal, Broadway South Repertory and The Friends of Saenger began a fundraising effort to save the theater that was built in 1929 and was one of more than 100 Saengers throughout the South. The pipe organ at the theater was sold in the 1970s to pay for the first renovation and the most recent major restoration was completed shortly before Hurricane Katrina.

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