Harrison County

Mississippi Coast cities try to clear up public waterfront leases

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 companies for government-owned property on the waterfront, Long Beach aldermen and some Gulfport City Council members are pushing for more control over the leases.

The Gulfport council will have a special meeting on the issue Thursday afternoon.

In Long Beach, at least one official on the Port Commission, which oversees the harbor there, is going to quit over the changes there.

A recent state Supreme Court decision also caused confusion over long-term leases with local government bodies. 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 Port Commission into an advisory board with no authority to enter harbor leases. Instead, the Board of Aldermen would be the landlord. Two restaurants have long-term leases with the Port Commission.

Phil Kies, Port Commission president, disagreed with the changes in the power structure.

"We have some yahoos on the Board of Aldermen, as I call them, who think they need to have the power," Kies said. He declined to name names.

"It's very plain (in the current law) that any actions that the Port Commission takes, whether it be leases, or setting the rates for boats down there, anything we do, has to be approved by the governing body, the Board of Aldermen," he said. "If they don't approve it, it doesn't get done."

Still, he said, the aldermen didn't think they had enough control. But Alderman Gary Ponthieux said that process took too long with the commission making changes that would then have to go back to the aldermen for approval. He said it was time to change that arrangement.

"I said get you some new port commissioners because I know one who's going to quit, that's me," Kies said. "And I'm sure there will be two or three more."

Changes in Gulfport

With a casino lease proposed in Gulfport's harbor, and more than one multimillion-dollar deal in the works landside, the Gulfport City Council endorsed a bill, which would require legislators' approval, to 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 council has called a special meeting for Thursday afternoon to talk about how the leases should be handled. The deadline is Friday for the legislation, which would give the either the GRC or the city authority to enter the leases.

Biloxi does it

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," he 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, said Carole Lynn Meadows, its chairwoman.

"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.

  Comments