Harrison County

The Coast thought it was getting a Whole Foods. What happened?

Gulfport Highlands has yet to live up to its billing as an upscale retail destination.
Gulfport Highlands has yet to live up to its billing as an upscale retail destination. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Gulfport shoppers with upscale taste buds salivated at the mere mention of Whole Foods as a possible tenant in a one-of-a-kind retail center in the fast-growing northern reaches of the city.

“Panera Bread is on the list of possibilities in Gulfport,” the Gulfport Highlands wrote on its Twitter account. “Thank you for all your feedback on the Facebook page — keep it coming!”

But that was in 2012 as the taxpayer-backed roads, water, sewer and electrical lines had just began going in at mixed-use development.

More than five years later, Highlands has fancy entrance off John Ross Road and Mississippi 605, smooth asphalt leading to a roundabout with an obelisk, and a home health care business, but not much else. Its Facebook page no longer exists; the Twitter feed ends in April of 2012 with a promise of “retail to come soon.”

Developer Noel Simms now says he might have been over-exuberant. Whole Foods probably won’t be coming to the Coast market.

The problem? Demographics.

Apparently, there are people hankering for Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Beef and the like, there just aren’t enough such shoppers to keep a Whole Foods or a Fresh Market in business.

And a lot of those stores he hoped would take a look at Highlands put their expansion plans on hold before deciding to concentrate on markets larger than the Coast.

“It has to do with incomes and other demographic data they look at,” said Simms, who said he is relying on information from a grocery study he had done and from reports from Realtors. Still he remains confident Highlands will offer shoppers an option they don’t have.

“We’re talking to a grocery concept that is not in our market currently,” he said. “We think it’s a great spot for a coffee shop. There’s a lot of traffic. A lot of people going north to St. Patrick (High School), to William Carey (University), a lot of people bypassing 49 and going up and down 605. We could have a coffee shop, a restaurant, a pharmacy, a bank — all the obvious neighborhood service things that could serve that whole surrounding area.”

Development pushes northward

A lot has happened on both those highways since the Highlands was unveiled. A little over three miles away, smaller but attractive strip malls line 605 with doctors, boutiques, a Subway and Pecan House. Grocery Depot opened a store a little over a mile away on Dedeaux Road.

Just off U.S. 49 and just north of the interstate, Anchor Plaza, which received the city’s backing about the same time as Highlands, has seen three restaurants and a strip of businesses such as UPS open since then.

All of that, said Simms, is good news as development pushes north toward his site bringing even more traffic up 605.

“It’s just been slow to come up our way,” he said. “But I think that, what I’ve been told by the city and Realtors, is that seems to be coming on up our way. We’re hopeful to have some opportunities to close and get moving.”

R.Lee Flowers, the councilman from Ward 6 where the development is located, said he remains optimistic that Highlands will take off.

“Everything they’ve done out there has really been top notch,” he said. “If he’s slow to develop because he’s going top notch, I’ll wait. If he does something less than desirable because he’s in a financial crunch or something, I’ll be disappointed. But he hasn’t done or said anything that leads me to believe that is the case.”

Flower said that even if there is no development, Highlands would still have to pay the about $3 million that Gulfport and Harrison County committed to finance the infrastructure. If it does develop, that money would be repaid from a portion of its sales and property taxes.

“We gave him a little leeway,” he said. “But ultimately, he’s on the hook.”

He’s also committed to creating 250 jobs under an agreement with the Mississippi Development Authority in return for a Katrina Community Development Block Grant of just under $5 million. Of those jobs, 128 would have to be filled by or offered to low-to-moderate income people.

MDA spokesman Jeff Rent said the deadline for job creation is September, but MDA could grant an extension. If not, MDA could attempt to get money back from Highlands or get it from Harrison County and let the county collect from Highlands.

What’s at stake

The stakes for Simms are indeed high.

He and his wife gave up careers in Washington to return the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2007.

“We were well-established there and had good careers there but it was something we wanted to come home and do after the storm,” he said. “I was born and raised in the South. I’m from Ocean Springs. We came home to do this.”

Simms said he and his brother bought the property, worked out the zoning and had environmental studies performed.

“I have to make it work,” he said. “This is what I’m doing every day. We’re actively working some great opportunities and I hope they work out.”

It would seem that much is working in Highlands favor. There is talk of one, possibly two or three dealerships moving in at the intersection of 605 and I-10. Adjacent to the Highlands, the Seashore Highlands offers assisted living and other housing that replaced the Methodist Senior Services apartments in Biloxi that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It’s minutes from I-10.

Flowers said the Highlands has helped spark some development, particularly the smaller strip malls to the south, and made them more attractive.

“When he did this as nice as he did up here, other people saw that maybe that’s what people are wanting and it really started some of that higher end aesthetics,” he said.

Even a nearby Dollar General doesn’t look like the typical Dollar General.

“Why would I want an outsider, and Dollar General is an outsider, come in and put up a tin can and make a ton of money of it?” he said.

It was easier to convince them by pointing out Highlands and First Baptist Church.

“He’s a local boy that’s done well,” said Flowers. “I’m really rooting for him for a lot of reasons.”