They started with a 300-word pitch of their "big idea," and now three women with dreams of improving South Mississippi are among the finalists in the $5 million Knight Cities Challenge.
From more than 4,500 entries, the contest is down to 158 finalists in the second annual challenge. Last year, 32 projects shared the $5 million prize. This year's winners will be announced in the spring.
The Knight Cities Challenge solicits proposals of out-of-the-box ideas for making the 26 communities where the Knight Brothers once owned newspapers -- including Biloxi/Gulfport -- more vibrant places to live and work.
The local finalists:
-- Danielle Rodriguez, who operates Lunch restaurant in Biloxi, where she also gives cooking classes, said she has long dreamed of creating a culinary district and marketplace downtown. With her proposal, she wants to highlight cultural diversity and history by engaging visitors and residents with "A Vieux of Biloxi" and the Three Bs -- Biloxi Bacon, which is actually fish, Barq's, the root beer that has its roots in Biloxi, and local bread.
-- Laurie Toups, director of Gulfport Main Street, proposes building an "urban retail village" out of repurposed shipping containers on an empty lot downtown. The 12 containers would be arranged in a U-shape, each with its own personality and all connecting with the theme of Gulfport's nearby container port. She envisions mostly shops, with a cafe or eatery.
-- Maryanna Rogers, who grew up in Mobile and still has ties to the Gulf Coast, submitted and idea for "LOQUI: Biloxi by Context Is Everything." She envisions "story stops" at local cafes, shops and galleries that promote authentic storytelling in a variety of ways to connect the Biloxi community.
The finalists now must submit their full proposals and budgets by Jan. 31.
Retail space at a premium
Toups said she already has verbal commitments from city leaders and private enterprise that they support the idea of retail shops in containers for entrepreneurs who want to come in and start a small business with affordable rent. The site she is eyeing is at the corner of 13th Street and 28th Avenue in downtown Gulfport, It's near the train depot that's been restored and converted to retail space and where, she said, "we have a waiting list of people who want to get in if anybody moves out." It's also just west of where the city is creating Fishbone Alley, and close to downtown restaurants.
"We have a lot of restaurants. We have a lot of businesses. What we don't have is a lot of space for retail," she said.
Ways to tell Biloxi's story
Rogers describes herself as a "social scientist and designer," and has done work with the Knight Foundation in San Jose, Calif. Feedback she got on her project after the first round has for her to focus on what people are passionate about, find the best storytellers on the Coast and designate six Biloxi establishments for sharing stories. She sees using show and tell or open mic nights, or possibly a booth for recording stories.
One day she hopes her project will spread to other communities across South Mississippi and she already is connecting people across the country. Her mother, Laura Jane Rogers, who lives in Mobile, is part of the project team, as is Hannah Jones, who works with Rogers in California.
Looking for a downtown
Rodriguez had the idea of creating a marketplace in Biloxi long before she received an email from the Knight Challenge telling her she was a finalist.
Since 2005's Hurricane Katrina, the other Coast cities have seen their downtowns come back, but Vieux Marche is lined with many empty buildings.
"We have a prime location here," she said. Vieux Marche backs up to the hospital and is in walking distance of casinos and the new baseball stadium.
"People walk this all the time," she said. They ask, "Where is your downtown?"
"They're looking for it," she said, and she wants to be able to pass on the legacy of Biloxi as a seafood capital, and emphasize its culinary history.
"I feel like food kind of brings people together," she said.