Harrison County

Gulfport votes to let residents decide on new 2 percent tax

Craig Johnson paints lines on one of the fields at the Gulfport Sportsplex before the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic.
Craig Johnson paints lines on one of the fields at the Gulfport Sportsplex before the Mississippi Gulf Coast Softball Classic. Sun Herald file

The city wants residents to decide whether restaurants and hotels should pay a 2 percent tax to cover Gulfport Sportsplex upgrades, construction of a regional soccer complex and other improvements.

The City Council voted 6-1 at a special meeting Wednesday to ask the state Legislature for authority to levy the tax. Gulfport voters would then have to approve the tax by a margin of 60 percent or more. Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines opposed the tax.

With the proposal, council president Rusty Walker said city leaders are continuing efforts to build Gulfport’s following as a family-friendly city for residents and tourists.

The city expects to open the Mississippi Aquarium in downtown Gulfport by early 2020. The old Veterans Affairs property on U.S. 90, which the city owns, is being redeveloped with a Holiday Inn Resort that features a water park.

And the Gulfport Sportsplex just north of Interstate draws families from around the region for weekend baseball tournaments. The sportplex hosted 100,000 players and spectators in 2017-18, Leisure Services Director Gus Wesson said.

The city credits the sportsplex with bringing restaurants and hotels to the area just north of Interstate 10, between U.S. 49 and Canal Road.

If residents approve the tax, Walker said the city would use the money to extend Daniel Boulevard from just west of U.S. 49 to the Canal Road service road that runs past the sportplex on the north side of Interstate 10. Also, the sportsplex needs maintenance, and the city would like to add an indoor training field and other improvements.

The city also wants to build a regional soccer complex with 16 to 25 fields and a multipurpose building, possibly south of Interstate 10 off Canal Road.

Walker said the city would commission a study before deciding whether the soccer complex would be built, where it should be located and how large it would be.

“It has to work,” he said. “We’re not a field of dreams kind of city. It’s not build it and they will come. It’s prove to me they will come and we will build it.”

The city would have detailed plans before asking voters to decide whether to support the tax, Walker and Mayor Billy Hewes said.

“Before we put anything before folks,” Hewes said, “we will have a very clear vision of what we want to do so people will know how the money will be spent.”

One objection voters have expressed to special taxes is that they remain in place after the improvements they funded have been paid off. Walker said if the city finances the specified improvements with bonds, he would prefer that the tax be retired once the bonds are paid off.

However, he said, if cash flow from the tax pays for improvements, the tax should remain in place as a replacement reserve.

Hotels in Harrison County already are subject to special room taxes that total 5 percent, in addition to 7 percent sales tax, to cover tourism marketing and expansion of the Mississippi Coast Convention Center on U.S. 90 in Biloxi.

Just in time for the holidays, the Chick-fil-A restaurant in Gulfport, Mississippi on U.S. Highway 49 reopened. It was closed for nearly two months for a total remodel. The store showed of the renovations in a video tour Nov. 16.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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