What will it take to make Howard Avenue great again?
It will be will be a day Andrew “FoFo” Gilich has dreamed about since becoming mayor four years ago.
Howard Avenue has been open for awhile since crews finished paving it in brick and returning it to a two-way street. Now, it will get it’s official opening ceremony on Friday, May 17.
“We’re going to celebrate a Reunion at the Union on Friday,” Gilich said during the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce Breakfast with the Mayor this week. People will be singing and dancing in the street, he promises.
The festivities are free and the celebration begins at 4:06 p.m. at the corner of Howard Avenue and Rue Magnolia. That’s where the Union Bar stood as the local hangout and pool hall. The starting time evokes the 406 Club, a known hangout for bookies and the target of a government raid decades ago.
The city, Biloxi Main Street and Merit Health Biloxi will host the street party with a jam session, food and games.
A parade of vintage cars will travel down the new brick street to open the festivities.
The mayor and friends who grew up together in downtown Biloxi will lead the celebration of #BiloxiStrong, a recent hashtag on social media that speaks to the resilience of the city that built back after Hurricane Katrina and buried police officer Robert McKeithen at the beginning of this week.
This opening of the street was scheduled before the officer was shot and killed outside the police station on May 5, and it will go on, city leaders decided.
“We’re ready for some dancing with all of the news we’ve had in the past several days.” said Nick Mattina, who is putting together a lineup of musicians. He and his brother Glenn operated the Upstairs-Downstairs nightclub in Biloxi for decades, and Nick led the Checkmates, a band that favored tunes by Ray Charles, James Brown, Fats Domino, and Irma Thomas.
Now known as “The Outpatient Band,” they’ll play for a couple of hours until about 6 p.m.
This celebration is just the start of what Gilich and the Biloxi Council have in mind for downtown. The council this year created a Howard Avenue Overlay District with design standards that will give it the look of Old Biloxi with awnings and overhangs and a mix of signs, and the convenience of WiFi to make it user-friendly today.
The city also approved tax incentives for The District on Howard, a $54 million redevelopment project that will restore the Barq building and other old buildings on the street and rebuild another into a mixed use of residential on top and restaurants, bars, entertainment and retail on the ground floor.
Downtown Biloxi was the largest Urban Renewal project in the country in the 1960s, as America tried to hold onto downtowns that were failing as malls became the place to shop.
Gilich often recalls the vibrancy of Howard Avenue and parades of hundreds of airmen down Howard Avenue and vows to return the look and feel of those days to Biloxi. It won’t be the same, he concedes, but he said Howard Avenue is coming to life again.