Harrison County

Gulfport harbor, waterfront developments need legislative approval to survive

SUN HERALD FILE 
 Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old White Cap Seafood Restaurant at Gulfport Harbor, rebuilt at another location, but the city is hoping to negotiate a long-term lease for another restaurant on the site at the harbor's south end.
SUN HERALD FILE Hurricane Katrina destroyed the old White Cap Seafood Restaurant at Gulfport Harbor, rebuilt at another location, but the city is hoping to negotiate a long-term lease for another restaurant on the site at the harbor's south end. THE SUN HERALD

GULFPORT -- In an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon, the City Council struck a compromise that would give it more control over multimillion-dollar projects on the waterfront, including a harbor casino and downtown aquarium.

The council agreed unanimously to send the state Legislature a "local-and-private" bill that would allow either the City Council or its urban renewal agency, the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission, to own and sign long-term leases on seven properties where a total of $450 million in projects are planned. The legislation has to be filed by Friday.

The council and GRC struck the deal because the state Supreme Court recently ruled a local government body can enter long-term leases only with express permission from the Legislature. Many local government boards are reviewing long-term leases as a result of the decision.

The city had deeded valuable properties to the GRC under the mistaken impression the agency could enter long-term leases while state law prevented the council from binding its successors to such deals.

Gulfport has deeded to the GRC its 57-acre Centennial Plaza property on U.S. 90; 14 acres for a downtown aquarium; the harbor casino site; and other properties. A harbor restaurant site still belongs to the city and would not be turned over to the GRC if the legislation is approved, Councilman Ricky Dombrowski said.

The legislation lists all seven properties. It goes to the local-and-private committees in both the House and Senate, where state Rep. Richard Bennett of Long Beach and state Sen. Tommy Gollott of Biloxi are members. Generally, the committees take the recommendation of the local representative and senator.

If either committee removes any of the properties from the list, those properties could no longer be developed because of the Supreme Court ruling. If the bill is amended and the House and Senate do not agree on a new version, all the projects could be dead.

Bennett and Gollott could not be reached to comment. But state Sen. Sean Tindell of Gulfport said he is doing everything he can to move the projects forward. "We don't want to lose any potential investment," he said.

GRC attorney Steve Hendrix said: "It is important that our local legislators, Sean and Richard, now push the local-and-private (legislation) through in Jackson as passed today. It is critical for the success of over $450 million of developments in Gulfport."

The committees also will consider legislation that would allow the Long Beach Board of Aldermen to enter long-term leases in its harbor, replacing the Port Commission as landlord. The board has voted to make the Port Commission an advisory agency.

In other Gulfport council action Thursday, changes to the GRC bylaws will require the agency to work more closely with the council on future leases and contracts for GRC properties. In the past, Dombrowski said, the GRC brought the deals to the city after they were essentially negotiated and finalized.

GRC Chairwoman Carole Lynn Meadows has pointed out the agency never sought any of its properties. Instead, she said, the volunteer board took on projects at the city's request. She said the GRC is willing to do whatever the city wants.

"The City Council, administration and GRC are all on the same page with these economic-development projects," Hendrix said, "and we're excited about pushing them forward over the next 12 months."

Politics editor Paul Hampton contributed to this report.

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