GULFPORT -- The owners of FunTime USA amusement park tried to hold a neighborhood meeting Monday to ease tensions with residents who live near and oppose the park's proposed development site, but none of the residents showed up.
FunTime owners Rafe O'Neal and Romy Simpson set up a tent in a driveway on Georgia Place just off Cowan Road, ordered a bunch of pizzas, brought an ice chest full of drinks and laid out photos and designs of the proposed development.
The owners are planning to build the park on a corner lot at U.S. 90 and Cowan Road just south of a small patch of houses on Georgia Place. About nine of those residents, however, have voiced unwavering opposition to the amusement park's location, afraid it will bring noise, traffic, litter and property devaluation to the quiet cul-de-sac.
O'Neal and Simpson expected at least one neighbor to come by for the 6 p.m. meeting that they had planned for weeks. They were hoping to compromise with the residents by showing them the new design for the park.
"We want to be good neighbors, and we wanted to have their input," Simpson said.
Planning Commission to decide on development again
The original plans called for a zoning change to lease about 3.5 acres of empty land just east of a lot on Cowan Road and U.S. 90. FunTime, however, has since partnered with the owner of that corner lot, allowing the park to expand westward for a total of 7 acres and provide a 170-foot buffer zone from the nearest residence.
The Gulfport Planning Commission has twice approved the zoning change -- once before the council rejected it and again after the council sent it back to the commission. The commission will decide again on Thursday.
By 6:30 p.m. Monday, it was quite clear that none of the opposing residents, some of whom were in their homes just yards away from the tent, were going to show up and meet with the FunTime owners.
One of those residents, 67-year-old Rebecca Kershaw, was working in her front yard garden as the FunTime group stood under their tent about 30 yards away.
Property values, quality of life
When approached and asked about the amusement park, she told the SunHerald, "I am vehemently against it."
She explained how she spent everything she had to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Now her home is "semi-storm resistant" with reinforced concrete walls, she said.
"When I rebuilt, it took everything I had," Kershaw said. "I am 67 now. If Katrina hadn't happened, I'd be retired."
Her point was clear -- property value.
Kershaw recalled hearing the park's noise from her house when FunTime was at its original location on the west side of Cowan Road before Katrina. Now with the park even closer, the noise will be louder, the crowds will be closer and the traffic will be thicker, she said.
"I have two main concerns -- quality of life and property value," she said. "This is going to devalue my property extensively."
O'Neal said it's unclear whether the park will devalue the nearby residential zone, adding that the new design includes more green space and a double-fence perimeter with a landscape setback to beef up security and curb appeal for the park.
FunTime's real estate broker, David Comstock, took issue with the opposition, saying the city is simply trying to grow. Aside from nine residents, the park has overwhelming support from the community, he said.
"Why don't we just tell people to put up signs saying, 'No more people can move to Harrison County, no more people can find places to live, no more people can find jobs and no one's kids can have fun,'" Comstock said, sarcastically. "I'm really tired of these 'not-in-my-backyard' people."
For Kershaw, however, it's a very real issue.
"People only support something like this when it's not in their backyard," she said.