Harrison County

Is a ‘world-class’ convention center feasible for Biloxi? Here’s what you need to know.

Biloxi landowner Chris Ferrara provided a rendering of what the former Heinz plant on the Back Bay could look like if it became a convention center. Biloxi Council on Tuesday gave the go-ahead for a feasibility study to look at the need for a convention center in East Biloxi and the best site..
Biloxi landowner Chris Ferrara provided a rendering of what the former Heinz plant on the Back Bay could look like if it became a convention center. Biloxi Council on Tuesday gave the go-ahead for a feasibility study to look at the need for a convention center in East Biloxi and the best site.. Courtesy of Chris Ferrara

City Council members have added their six thumbs up to conducting a study that will look at whether a second convention center in the city is a good opportunity, where it should be built in East Biloxi, and how it should be funded.

On Tuesday — with Councilman Nathan Barrett recusing himself and out of the room during the discussion — the council voted 6-0 to move forward with a feasibility study that will be paid for by the developer, BBR Biloxi. The estimated cost of the study is $150,000 to $200,000.

“We just want to know — is it doable?” Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said. “And if it is, where should it be?”

Gilich said the Wall Street investors considering the project, described as a “world-class, waterfront, mixed-use convention center and retail project,” have local ties in Baton Rouge, Picayune and Pearl River County. The manager is listed as Jeff Bartlam in Baton Rouge.

“They’re the ones doing the study,” Gilich said, and if they decide to proceed will put up to $150 million into the deal to build a convention and retail center near the waterfront and within a mile of about 6,000 hotel rooms in East Biloxi. He said it will allow the city to cash in on its waterfront and will fill hotel rooms midweek.

The public had many questions about the proposed convention center when they read about the proposal in the Sun Herald:

What will the convention center cost Biloxi taxpayers?

Under Tuesday’s council vote, the city will pay up to $250,000 for pre-development costs if BBR Biloxi agrees to purchase the former Tullis Manor site from the city. The agreement says Biloxi will help select a site and develop a public-private partnership to obtain funding to “establish, own and operate” the convention and retail center.

Why that site?

The Tullis-Toledano property at 947 Beach Boulevard, west of Harrah’s Gulf Coast, is just one of the properties being considered, Gilich said. If the developer buys the land from the city for a convention center site, it would be coupled with adjoining private property, he said.

“There’s a lot of empty space in east Biloxi,” said Gerald Blessey, city attorney. The study also will look at property east of Interstate 110 and specifically at:

- land owned by the city and state south of U.S. 90 and east of Myrtle;

- vacant land on the east side of Holley Street and south side of Howard Avenue;

- vacant land east of Myrtle and north of U.S. 90, vacant parcels on Caillavet Street north of Division Street;

- the city’s land and waterfront at the Sherman Canaan Back Bay Fishing Docks on Bayview Avenue.

Wasn’t the Tullis Manor site part of ancient burial grounds?

The property was being considered as the spot to rebuild the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum after Hurricane Katrina. That changed after a 2010 letter to the city from Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Thomas “Mike” Womack. He said the Tullis-Toledano property contains “many intact cultural deposits, and the adjoining property contains Native American burial sites.”

Womack said FEMA had concerns that the likelihood of encountering burials and other archeological deposits on the property gives a “high potential for substantial cost increases and extensive delays.”

Regulations that apply to a city, however, don’t necessarily apply to a private developer.

What about Back Bay waterfront sites?

At the Tullis site, flood elevation and velocity zones will be a challenge as a convention center location.

Chris Ferrara, who owns the former Heinz plant on the Back Bay in East Biloxi and proposes a casino there, attended Tuesday’s council meeting and offered another option. His 180,000-square-foot waterfront building sits on 24 acres, above the flood plain and out of the velocity zone and said.

“I will offer that to the city as a convention center,” either for sale or as a joint venture. “I think it would be a fantastic facility because it’s already there,” he said. The building has reinforced concrete floors, 30-foot ceilings, no protected oak trees and no Native American burial site.

The challenge for this site and the Back Bay Fishing Docks is the lack of hotel rooms in walking distance.

Don’t Harrison County taxpayers still owe millions for the Coast Convention Center?

“I don’t want anyone to forget this facility was built with tax dollars and it’s being paid for with tax dollars,” said Matt McDonnell, executive director of the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center in West Biloxi. The debt service on one of the bonds ends in 2034 and another starts in 2035, he said.

The debt service has always been paid for with the tourism tax approved by the voters, he said. Events and fees cover the cost of operating the facility, while many other facilities require additional tax dollars for operations.

In its 41 years, the facility has hosted casino events, Cruisin’ The Coast, science fairs and Donald Trump when he campaigned for president.

There could be a market for two convention centers if a private developer funds the one in East Biloxi, he said, and no additional tax levy on Harrison County is added “for any reason.”

The Coliseum Commission has been fighting for years to find a developer to build a hotel at the convention center and bring more meetings to the facility.

Conventions are big business, McDonnell said. “In the end it’s all going to be dictated pretty much by the math,” he said. The $150 million for the proposed new center could build “a whole lot of hotel rooms” near the current center, he said.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald