Harrison County

Spring break organizer says feeling welcome is about perception. Here are Biloxi’s plans.

It made Four Loko’s list of one of the “biggest, wildest, most talked about outdoor parties in America,” and this weekend’s black spring break will draw people from as far as Alaska, organizers say.

The crowd in 2018 reached 30,000, police say, which fell below estimates of up to 125,000 because of the threat of heavy rain. With thunderstorms again in the forecast, it’s unclear what the expected crowd is this year as events stretch from three days to four, April 11-14.

Two years ago, Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich vowed there wouldn’t be a repeat of the “bad behavior” and traffic issues that happened in 2017 when there was double the amount of spring breakers as the year before.

The solutions weren’t popular with visitors. Last year, some spring breakers said they didn’t feel welcome in Biloxi, due to the orange traffic cones on U.S. 90 to control traffic, the barriers that limit people from walking across the highway except in crosswalk areas, and the number of police patrolling the beach.

“When it comes to feeling welcome, I think it’s all about personal perception,” said Derrian Burns. He, along with Maurice Bryant, are the promoters of the 6th Black Beach Weekend in Biloxi.

Several other promoters also host events, such as the concert the Coliseum, parties at local bars, and contests at “park-n-play” lots they’ve rented along the beach.

Safety matters

Look at spring break events at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, or Orange Crush near Savannah, Georgia — “They all have similar traffic plans,” Burns said.

Last year, spring breakers saw metal barriers blocking stretches of the sidewalks along the Biloxi beach and he said they got the impression, “They don’t want us on the beach,” he said.

“These people are not from here,” he said, and they don’t know that the city uses barricades for Mardi Gras and other events to keep people from darting across the highway. They also don’t know that the long stretches of fence on the Gulfport beach are there to protect bird nesting areas.

“We want everyone to have a great time, whether it’s Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Cruisin’, Scrapin’ or any event,” said Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, “but we also need to make sure it’s a safe time, for not only those attending the event, but for everyone else in the city. That’s why we have traffic plans and codes of conduct for major events.”

Burns agrees that public safety is the No. 1 concern at every event, and said he is using social media to educate people coming from across the country on the rules and nuances of spring break. That goes for everything from regulations that glass and pets aren’t allowed on the sand, to how to book a hotel room when it’s not listed on popular booking websites.

Good for business?

How much do spring breakers — whose age averages from 23 to 35, according to organizers — spend on the Coast?

Admission to Saturday’s concert starts at $69 plus the $5 parking fee. Admission to Twerkfest ranges from $25 to $55.

Restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores near the beach usually stay busy, and food vendors, who must have a permit from the city, will be set up along U.S. 90.

Attractions don’t typically do as well. Brandon Wooldridge, who operates Big Play Entertainment Center, said last year they went all out to attract business and hired a DJ and extra help, but lost money. This year the go-karts, bowling, laser tag and arcade at Big Play will be open, but he said, “All of our birthday parties have been canceled for the weekend.”

The timing of spring break isn’t good for department stores and shoe stores at Edgewater Mall. Typically on the weekend before Easter families crowd the stores buying new spring outfits. This year families may stay away rather than deal with the traffic and crowds, said mall manager Terry Powell.

Last year, visitors complained that several stores in the mall closed during spring break weekend. Powell said he isn’t aware of any that plan to close this year. He said there are stores that benefit from the crowds that come for spring break, and others that get hurt by it.

“We want to do great business,” he said, “and I just want everybody to be safe.”

The biggest dance club on the Coast, Hard Rock Casino’s Live #REMIX, will be closed for renovations this weekend. The casino said Live #REMIX also closed April 6, and the space will be open for the Seether concert on Friday before closing that night and Saturday.

“We invite all spring breakers to come stay and enjoy all the additional amenities the property has to offer,” the casino said in a statement.

‘Open for everyone’

Even though the official name for his event is Black Beach Weekend, Burns said, “The event is open for everyone. We’d love to see people from other races come see what the event is about,” he said. “And a lot of them come.”

Biloxi police monitors social media to get an idea of how big the crowds will be. At least 30 people tweeted that they planned to come to Biloxi’s Black Beach Weekend after police cracked down on the revelry at Miami’s spring break at the end of March.

The Miami Herald reported an emergency meeting was called when residents complained about a particularly wild spring break after videos of fights and other misbehavior were posted on social media.

“A police squad was mobilized to patrol the beach in helmets and protective gear, seizing alcohol and drugs,” the Herald reported. “Barricades were added to Ocean Drive, and reinforcements were called in from other police departments.” A campaign slogan advised spring breakers headed for Miami, “Come on vacation. Don’t leave on probation.”

Jerome Hynes, who was there for spring break, told the Miami Herald, “I feel like they’re here to regulate the African-American community.”

Other cities like Panama City and Gulf Shores, Alabama, banned alcohol on the beach after spring break got too big and rowdy.

Residents of South Mississippi are divided on spring break. Some of the comments on social media are welcoming, such as “they come because they can, and because they come, they should not be treated badly. They deserve to be treated fairly just like any other visitors that come to the Coast.”

Others are less tolerant, saying many of the spring breakers aren’t just college students.

“Biloxi is in the national spotlight when it comes to this event,” said Burns, who is a veteran and lives on the Coast. Everyone’s perception is what is going to make black spring break bigger or smaller, he said.

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Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.