Harrison County

Gulfport buzzing with new activity

Momentum continues to build in downtown Gulfport as the city prepares to celebrate the opening of Jones Park and the new harbor on Memorial Day weekend.

Property owners are gutting and renovating more historic buildings for new tenants. Two restaurants will open soon on 27th Avenue and a new bar, Irish Coast Pub, is set to open on 25th Avenue. Also, the city is requesting proposals for a tenant or tenants to move in to the newly restored railroad depot west of Hancock Bank.

“We’re bullish on downtown Gulfport,” said Bob Taylor, who teamed up on two restaurants that are thriving downtown and is about to open a third, Red Sky Crab House on 27th Avenue. Another tenant is opening TA Sushi Bar.

“We want to expand with downtown,” Taylor said.

Gulfport businessman Dennis Barber, who owns the building, started investing about 14 years ago in property downtown, which sits just north of U.S. 90 and is bisected by U.S. 49. The area was stagnant when he started investing, but he knew it would not stay that way.

“The heartbeat of Mississippi is at the intersection of highways 90 and 49,” Barber said. “You’ve got the harbor; you’ve got the port. It had to come back.”

Barber thought Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would set back downtown redevelopment by five years or so, but the opposite happened. Under former Mayor Brent Warr, the city secured grants to renovate downtown building façades as a part of hurricane recovery. Warr brought aboard Lisa Bradley to head the Gulfport Main Street program and she worked with business owners interested in the façade grants.

Once building owners saw the city was serious about revitalization, they started to come aboard. The new downtown has since proven a popular venue for concerts, Cruisin’ The Coast and other events.

It is gaining a reputation as an entertainment district.

Marvin Koury, whose family roots downtown date back more than a century, wants to see the area become much more. He is renovating a one-story building at the southwest corner of 27th Avenue on 14th Street. One tenant, a salon, already is confirmed. He would like to attract as tenants a specialty meat market and grocery store, along with other service-oriented businesses.

Koury said the downtown area also needs an optometrist or two and a medical clinic. An entertainment venue is fine, he said, but people who live and work in the area need services, which also would encourage more growth.

To the east, Sawyer Real Estate has set up shop in an old building that was nothing more than three walls and a slab before renovations began.

The old Markham Hotel looms across the street. It is one spot the city is still working to clean up. Mayor George Schloegel said eminent domain proceedings are moving forward. The city wants to tear down the building if it is not going to be renovated. The owner, a New Orleans lawyer, says he has prospective buyers, but still no sale.The official opening of the harbor and Jones Park is expected to increase interest in the downtown area.

Schloegel said the city will celebrate completion of the post-Katrina waterfront projects Memorial Day Weekend.

”I’m absolutely delighted that during the day as well as into the evening, so many people are patronizing the downtown area,” Schloegel said.

Harbor master George Manemann said the city has permanently leased 90 of its 319 boat slips and also has transient traffic in the harbor. Many boaters still have not realized the harbor has reopened, he said. But the slips are ready for boats and are accessible as work continues on Jones Park on the harbor’s north end.

Schloegel said he visited downtown and the waterfront on a recent weekend. He was pleasantly surprised by all the traffic.

“My question is, where is the recession?” Schloegel asked. “I don’t see it. It’s just remarkable how many people are getting out. It looks to me like the economy has turned.”