It’s been a long time since downtown’s glory days, when soda shops and car hops and poodle skirts filled the streets.
But can downtown ever be that popular again?
Many city leaders have tried, and at one point it was even the largest urban renewal project in the South — called Vieux Marche. But that was a flop. And it hasn’t improved significantly since.
The city has a plan of action, but it will take more than returning what was there in the 1950s to attract today’s young professionals and families.
The Sun Herald talked to readers about what they want to see, and examined the city’s plan.
What does downtown need?
Residents told the Sun Herald they’d be attracted to outdoor dining, boutiques, bars, music venues and street festivals.
Right now Biloxi’s downtown is mainly banks and professional offices, said Darren Baumgartner. “But a city’s downtown is the heart of the city — let it say something about the people there and draw people downtown. In doing so it generates revenue, creates a sense of community and boosts the economy.”
Travis Williams likes the retro look Gilich proposes. “Bring back old town Biloxi and watch the people roll in. Tourists love that stuff,’ he said. “They’ll eat it up. Coffee shops, cafes, boutiques, banks, post office, pubs and night clubs, theaters. It be like stepping back to a simpler time.”
Others say they want a more modern look and feel and a walkable, bikeable community with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and apartments above.
“Just give it to the casinos and become a truly family-friendly version of Vegas,” suggests Jared Breal. “Waterpark, theaters, casinos, whatever else. We’d have a huge surplus right now.”
The game plan
The city’s proposed makeover starts with the return of two-way traffic on Howard Avenue for the first time since 1976, and the exterior restoration of Saenger Theater.
Those are two goals in the city’s five-year Downtown Vision Plan to attract new businesses. The plan would also install decorative lighting and underground utilities, add ultra high speed Wi-Fi in the area to support today’s technology — all while bringing back the look of “old Biloxi.”
Gazing down the street, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich doesn’t so much see the “for rent” signs in many storefronts today as he recalls the excitement of Howard Avenue when he was growing up on the street and envisions the “cool place” he expects it to become.
“Think about walking into a happening downtown area after a Shuckers’ game, or a show at the Beau Rivage or Hard Rock, or after seeing a production in the Saenger,” he said.
One of his favorite downtown areas is The Strand in Galveston, Texas — a family-friendly mix of attractions, shopping, restaurants and events. Families can explore an offshore rig, go aboard a tall ship and experience “The Great Storm” that destroyed much of Galveston in 1900. Professionals are drawn downtown with a mix of restaurants and bars, the chance to join a cooking class and take part in Music Nite or Movie Nite on the Strand.
How will it succeed?
What’s most needed for a vibrant downtown is people.
“Look to any city that has revitalized their downtown,” said Sun Herald reader Julia McClain Clarke. “You need people there after the sun goes down. Urban living of walking to enjoy the restaurants, bars, cafes etc.”
There are some bars and restaurants already bringing people to downtown: Southport Line, Wayward Kraken, Ole Biloxi Fillin’ Station, Patio 44 and Mugshots to name a few. But living space and retail is scarce.
Biloxi wants to create “that location” where people and families want to go to when they’re looking for something to do, said Councilman Robert Deming III. The baseball park “overshot expectations” and hasn’t drawn the amount of walkers expected, he said. But Biloxi can create a walking downtown in other ways such as food and beverage, he said.
The marketplace will determine what kind of businesses open up, Deming said. With so many empty buildings, he sees that availability as the biggest opportunity. “We can start from anything and become what we want,” he said.
Like Howard Avenue, said Councilwoman Dixie Newman, Hiller Park was a mess before she took it on and found funds and donations for new playgrounds, LED lights and other improvements. She operates a vintage store and is opening a coffee shop on the west end of Howard Avenue, where traffic already is two-way, and says just widening the street isn’t enough to reinvigorate the downtown.
Howard Avenue would be perfect for convenience stores and boutiques if the large buildings could be split to allow small businesses to move in, she said. “I would love to live on top and work on the bottom,” she said. “That’s a dream to me.”
Where does it start?
By all measures Howard Avenue has the elements needed to thrive. Nearby Beau Rivage and Hard Rock casinos provide a combined 2,220 hotel rooms and two more hotels — the 138 all-suites Watermark Hotel and adjacent 100-room Hilton Garden Inn — should open this year on U.S. 90, two blocks away.
Construction begins this year on two overhead pedestrian crossings near both casinos, inviting visitors to venture north of U.S. 90 into the downtown. At the east end of Howard Avenue. Community Bank purchased the federal building and will demolish the eyesore that has sat vacant since 2003. A new Community Bank will be built, leaving ample room for future development of the site.
The downtown has MGM Park, home to the Biloxi Shuckers, the historic Saenger Theater and the Coast Transit Authority bus station, which could serve as a station if passenger trains return to the Coast.
It’s what will come in the middle of all this that will determine if the street flourishes or flops.
A big part of the downtown plan calls for finding funding to replace the ’70s facade of the Barq’s building with a brick exterior. The sprawling 60,000-square-foot building could have commercial space at street level and condos on the upper floors, he said. If all this happens, parking garages will be needed, which he said is a good thing even when they come at a construction cost of $7,000 per car.
To help pay for some of the transformation of the downtown Biloxi, Gilich said he was encouraged to learn that part of the new federal tax law are Opportunity Zones to help revitalize neighborhoods and towns.. “We qualify,” he said, and Biloxi already has applied for a share of the funding.
Downtown Biloxi timeline
- 1940s: downtown thriving
- Late 1950s: Downtown begins a slow demise caused by businesses moving from the center city and from the building of shopping centers away from the central business district.
- 1960: Mayor Laz Quave begins looking to renew downtown. Biloxi Planning Commission created.
- 1963: Edgewater Mall opens in west Biloxi.
- 1968: Official Urban Renewal application filed on July 17, 1968. Biloxi was given $22.2 million to revitalize its central business district, the largest urban renewal project in the South money-wise, according to HUD.
- 1969: Hurricane Camille struck and changed the entire scope of the project
- 1975: $2 million observation tower and restaurant proposed but never built on the beach across from Magnolia Mall to entice shoppers and tourists into the Old Biloxi shopping mall.
- 1976: Open-air mall completed and Vieux Marche closed to automobile traffic.
- 1978: J.C. Penney moves to Edgewater Mall; about 20 businesses remain.
- 1985: Nov. 1985 – 9-month study on ways to revitalize downtown Biloxi and Vieux Marche calls for removing canopy and fountains and reopening street to traffic and encourage special shops that appeal to the “yuppie” crowd.
- 1986: Construction of Biloxi Regional Hospital completed in downtown Biloxi.
- 1990s: Vieux Marche becomes haven for professional office. “We realized that retail will never come back to the area, and it’s going to take professional entities to fill in,” said Lucienne Gautier, then president of Biloxi Main Street program. “No more Penney’s. No more Woolworths.”
- 1992: Brainstorming session suggests a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 90 and an attraction created to lure people from the beach.
- 1993: Construction begins to reopen Vieux Marche to one-way traffic.
- 2017: Biloxi Council approves Mayor Gillich’s request to remove the Vieux Marche name and make it Howard Avenue again.
- 2018: Bids opened to return Howard Avenue to 2-way traffic after more than 40 years.
Councilman Robert Deming III: The city should work with businesses and allow neon signs on the street to say “look at me” and draw people staying in the casinos downtown.
Planning Commissioner Gary Lechner: “I would like to see it look like it did in the ’40s and ’50s,” although it costs more money to make it look that way. He recalls when JC Penney, Woolworth, SH Kress, Sears and A&P operated downtown, along with theaters where you could see a movie for a dime and the 406 Club where people could bet (illegally) on horses in the back room.
Cono Caranna: Businessman whose company is building Watermark Hotel, said the two crossovers on U.S. 90 will bring people staying in the casinos across to the downtown, and also give those in the downtown direct access to the water and the harbor.
Atty. Travis Burke: The Burke Law Firm is located along Howard Avenue and he said, “I think I’ve always pictured this as an area with businesses and walking back and forth.” The challenge will be finding a mix between professional offices and bars, he said.
Chip Landry: He moved back to Biloxi from Atlanta a few months ago and said he’d like to see a mix of gift and art shops like Ocean Springs and a mini Bourbon Street like New Orleans or Beale Street like Memphis.
Councilman Felix Gines: Residents of his ward have endured three years of street construction and that work is about to move to the areas near downtown. With that work and the reconstruction of Howard Avenue, “We’re just going to have to be patient with this,” he said.