Harrison County

Big stakes in play over who controls public waterfront leases

calee@sunherald.com

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDCentennial Plaza is one of several valuable waterfront property to which the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission holds title. At the city's request, GRC has been working on development deals for these properties.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALDCentennial Plaza is one of several valuable waterfront property to which the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission holds title. At the city's request, GRC has been working on development deals for these properties.

As deals are struck with private businesses for government-owned property on the waterfront, Long Beach aldermen and some Gulfport City Council members are pushing for more control over the leases.

A recent state Supreme Court decision also caused confusion over long-term leases and who can enter them. Attorneys for local government boards all over the state are reviewing their leases.

The Long Beach Board of Aldermen is seeking legislation specific to the city that would turn its decades-old harbor commission into an advisory board with no authority to enter harbor leases. Instead, the Board of Aldermen would be the landlord. Two restaurants currently have long-term leases with the harbor commission.

With a casino lease proposed in Gulfport's harbor and more than one multi-million deal in the works landside, the Gulfport City Council sent legislation to Jackson that would allow the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission specific authority to enter long-term leases. But Councilman Ricky Dombrowski is having second thoughts about signing off on the proposed bill.

He said the council was misinformed when advised years ago that it could not enter long-term leases because successors would be subject to the terms. Based on that advice, a previous council agreed in 2008 to create the GRC so the agency could enter long-term leases for the city.

The Gulfport City Council has called a special meeting for Thursday afternoon to talk about how the leases should be handled. The deadline is Friday for legislation that would give the GRC or city authority to enter the leases.

Dombrowski said the Biloxi City Council enters long-term leases, so the Gulfport council should be able to as well. In Biloxi, city attorney Gerald Blessey said the council has entered long-term leases under two conditions.

In some cases, the city secures specific state legislation to lease property long term. Where federal money is involved, state community development laws give the council authority to enter the leases, he said.

Dombrowski said he believes elected officials who answer to voters should be approving and signing the leases rather than an advisory board.

"We're meeting to talk about our options," Dombrowski said. "There have been a lot of phone calls today to talk this over. I'm glad Long Beach moved forward and took action. It spurred interest on our side."

The stakes have increased as GRC's proposed projects add up. Mayor Billy Hewes has pegged GRC projects in the pipeline at $400 million.

GRC has always come to the council with contracts and leases, Chairwoman Carole Lynn Meadows said.

"We would never sign anything before we took it to the council for input," she said. The requirement to secure city permission is now being added to GRC bylaws.

Meadows said the GRC has never asked the city for property. Instead, the city approaches GRC on development deals.

Staff Writer Paul Hampton contributed to this report.

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