GULFPORT -- The city's biggest deals -- a downtown aquarium, a harbor casino, and a Holiday Inn Resort and festival marketplace at Centennial Plaza -- are in the hands of an urban-renewal agency that has enjoyed a good bit of autonomy and privacy, but that is about to change.
The City Council on Tuesday unanimously endorsed state legislation that would give the agency, the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission, authority to enter long-term leases for these developments and others. The council also unanimously demanded concessions in exchange.
The GRC must report monthly to the city; have its books audited with city finances; agree to a monthly meeting at City Hall; and add two members each from the City Council and administration to review development proposals.
At the council's insistence, those changes will be added to GRC's bylaws.
The council and GRC struck the agreement because of a recent Supreme Court decision that throws into question a government commission's right to enter long-term leases without express permission.
GRC's attorney, Steve Hendrix, said a bill is pending in the state Legislature that would give GRC authority to enter leases of up to 60 years. The legislature, he said, would consider the bill only with the council's endorsement.
Without that permission, Hendrix said, pending projects would fall apart. GRC has a long-term lease with developers for Centennial Plaza. It also is negotiating leases with a potential developer for the harbor casino and the proposed owner of an elevated harbor restaurant. Hendrix said a draft lease is ready on the old Gulfport library that will be part of the aquarium development on U.S. 90, Plus, GRC has requested proposals for a hotel on the aquarium site.
The city deeded all these properties to GRC because state law prohibits city councils from entering long-term leases that would obligate successive councils and administrations to such contracts.
The council had a lengthy discussion about whether to endorse the legislation. All the projects in question are in Councilman Ricky Dombrowski's ward, which covers the waterfront.
Dombrowski was angry because the administration and GRC failed to contact him before requesting the legislation. In fact, most council members said they should be better informed about the GRC's activities.
"I, too, get beat up about what's not happening at Centennial Plaza," Councilman R.Lee Flowers said. "It's not even in my ward."
The project stalled after historic state tax credits were depleted. A bill in the legislature would replenish the credits, which the developer says are essential to project financing.
Councilwoman Cara Pucheu said she was almost glad about the Supreme Court ruling because it forced the issue of GRC's accountability. Council members said they appreciate the hard work of GRC, a volunteer board of five, but want more communication from the agency.