While kids are busy writing to Santa, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich is making his wish list for Biloxi — and he just added a pedestrian bridge to Deer Island.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to walk there?” he asked after the recent Breakfast with the Mayor at Merit Health Biloxi. He tossed out the idea of the footbridge after a rundown of the many projects under way across the city.
A pedestrian bridge isn’t part of several other development plans already proposed for the city.
“This is my idea,” he said. He declined to provide other details or tell how he might pay for the bridge, but he did share his inspiration.
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Look at the London Millennium Footbridge, he said. That steel suspension bridge crosses the Thames River in London and Gilich said it’s something that could be a big attraction in Biloxi, too.
Close but far away
A span across the relatively narrow boat channel to Deer Island has been suggested before in Biloxi.
In May 1978, then Mayor Jerry O’Keefe went to the planning commission with his idea to acquire a ski lift to carry people from the mainland — out over the water — to the island.
O’Keefe said the gondola-type lift was surplus and was available from the federal government at no cost.
The catch was that removing the ski lift from where it was in place in the Carolina mountains would cost around $50,000 to $100,000. O’Keefe said it would take another $300,000 to $400,000 to build a tower and install the lift to Deer Island.
The Swiss engineer who installed the lift at the ski area visited Biloxi to look over site possibilities for the tower. The lift would run from property owned by the Biloxi Port Commission and the city to the west end of Deer Island.
“We can get a $1 million project for half price and it is in as good condition as it was when it was put up nine years ago,” O’Keefe said of the lift that had transported skiers up the mountain.
He indeed got the chairlift to Biloxi, but he didn’t get the tower installed. By some accounts, the equipment was sold for scrap, but Gilich said he believes it’s still in a warehouse somewhere.
Fast forward 40 years and Mississippi now owns most of Deer Island, which has been replenished with 2 million cubic yards of oyster shells and other material on the west side. The state built a landing dock on the island, across from Margaritaville, but there’s no regular shuttle to get there. Residents who don’t own a boat and most visitors never set foot on the island just off the mainland.
That’s not the only bridge on the mayor’s wish list. Gilich says he is dreaming of a Biloxi Beach Connector that would run from Mississippi 67, down Shriner’s Boulevard to Popp’s Ferry and all the way to the beach.
He calls it a “$255 million vision” and says it would take two bridges — a replacement for the Popp’s Ferry Bridge without a drawbridge and another bridge across the Biloxi River.
“That’s the long-range plan,” he said. “Gulfport has that with (Mississippi) 605,” he said, and it would become another direct hurricane evacuation route.
Development plans keep coming to Biloxi. “It’s kind of like mirror, mirror on the wall. What’s going to happen today?” Gilich said.
Santa isn’t the only person the mayor is looking at to bring him the many millions of dollars to fund his wish list. Biloxi was the first city in Mississippi to get paperwork in to become an Opportunity Zone.
Gilich has traveled to Washington, D.C., several times looking for support from the Coast Congressional delegation and President Donald Trump. Gilich said the president told him he can’t give a yes to everything Biloxi and other cities across the country request. “But I can give you a quick no,” Gilich said the president told him.
Gilich already has gotten the Biloxi Council to check some things off his list, like hosting the Blue Angels air show over the beach, new fire stations in north Biloxi and Woolmarket, erasing the name Vieux Marche and bringing back Howard Avenue, making it a two-way street through downtown again and paving it with bricks.
The council turned down his idea of a homeless shelter, concerned about the costs for the city. And while the council supported his ideas of building new boardwalks in west and east Biloxi, his idea of building a multitude of piers over the water — when every tropical storm tears them up — is an idea that may not float.
The rest of the list
For those who have grants and money to spend in Biloxi, here’s what else is on FoFo’s Gift List this year:
▪ Money to repair the Saenger Theater exterior. “It is a jewel. It is culturally Biloxi,” he said. Pensacola invested $7 million in their Saenger, he said, and New Orleans maybe $17 million. “We’re just looking for one or two to keep the water out,” he said.
▪ A rejuvenated Point Cadet. “We know we have a waterfront that has a tremendous opportunity,” he said, and it can attract millennial visitors and those who want to live in residential areas within walking distance of restaurants, bars and entertainment, all happening on the waterfront.
▪ Upgrades and more power to Point Cadet Marina, which could cost as much as $20 million and bring in more big boat traffic.
▪ Secure sand. Gilich said he has Army Corps of Engineers approval to keep working on his plan to keep sand from blowing off the beach in a test area from Oak Street to Small Craft Harbor. He wants to lower the level of the sand and build a shelf that will keep sand from blowing onto the roads.
▪ A homeless shelter in the city
▪ Gig Internet service throughout the city
▪ Development of a corridor leading to the new Keesler Gate and the Air Force Base. The $30 million-plus project is an economic opportunity “we’ve dreamed about for a number of years,” he said.
▪ Another term. Gilich, who has been mayor since 2015, said some people in Biloxi think the job might be too much for him.
“I thrive on stress. I strive on action,” he tells them. “I want to be where the action is and the action’s going to be right here,” he said of Biloxi.