Harrison County

Gulfport transformed its downtown after Katrina. Can it do the same for Pass Road?

Regular drivers of Pass Road know there are stretches of that major east-west byway that are, to put it nicely, not doing so well.

For example, from 34th Avenue east to Tegarden Road — a four-lane route that should be hopping with retail and service jobs — is pockmarked with vacant lots and empty buildings.

At its last meeting, the City Council started down the path toward filling in the blanks along that route and several other areas similarly left "blighted" since Hurricane Katrina. Development Director David Parker said the city has started on a plan to offer tax breaks and other incentives to lure business and industry there.

"We're looking for different ways that we can put incentive programs around town ... a lot like we've done on the beach and downtown," he said. "The first step to be able to do those" is to designate certain parts of the city as urban renewal areas.

Downtown, building facades were restored and sidewalks were spruced up with benches and planters in recent years. Restaurants, bars and nightlife soon followed, as did out-of-state investment. Apartments were built above shops.

Other buildings were refurbished. A restaurant was built overlooking the beach. Another is going up in the heart of downtown. At the east end of downtown, the under-construction Mississippi Aquarium, city leaders say, brings with it the promise of more business. An area once bleeding businesses has been transformed.

Parker said the city is searching for the formula that could similarly transform Pass Road or Dedeaux Road or any of the other areas the council has found to be blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped.

The prescription probably won't be the same for every area.

"We can be more on offense," he said. "It gives us more flexibility to do what we want to do to help a project. We don't have to do the same things for every project. It gives us the flexibility to do different things in different areas."

He said that flexibility sets this program apart from a tax abatement program the city has for pricier houses built on or near the beach. That program waives city taxes on newly built homes for five years but doesn't waive taxes on the land the homes sit on. And it is for some of the more expensive houses in town — the minimum investment is $400,000.

That, as Parker pointed out, isn't the formula for Pass Road. It is a land of strip malls of various sizes, shapes and occupancy levels. In more than one, a for-lease sign has been bleached by the sun until it's barely legible without attracting a tenant. Used-car dealers come and go, leaving behind little but a vacant lot. At more prominent intersections, Pass Road and Courthouse Road, there's a lot going on if your need gas or some fast food in your tank or a prescription from a chain pharmacy.

In between is not the most attractive strip of commercial real estate on the Coast.

It's up to Parker and his team to figure out what will turn it around.

Besides the stretch of Pass Road, there is a several-square-block section west of U.S. 49 northwest of downtown that has a lot of vacant lots and some homes.

In Orange Grove, there is the mostly undeveloped corner at Dedeaux Road and Mississippi 605, a road that has become home to several clinics and retail strips a bit to the south. To the west of that is a stretch of Dedeaux that is much like Pass Road, a mishmash of thriving businesses interspersed among empty buildings, homes and vacant lots.

"This is the ability to put in any type of plan that we want in these different areas," he said. "There are seven different areas of town where we did these. They are areas with high traffic counts, a lot of people, a lot of customer base. Areas that are ripe for development and redevelopment."