Hurricane Katrina

Old Town: A ghost town

BAY ST. LOUIS - Except for a few gulls scurrying down Main Street and a handful of open businesses, much of Old Town remains deserted.

There's hardly a sign that these few blocks were once the heart of Hancock County, swarming with bars and restaurants, art galleries and shops, and the center of city and county government.

Local and federal agencies have fashioned a plan to rebuild the section of Beach Boulevard that ran through Old Town. The project includes restoring the 30-foot bluff upon which Old Town was built, extending the land further into the water and building a retaining wall to stand level with the boulevard.

In addition, local officials are planning to swap land with owners of businesses on the beach side of the road. In exchange for a few feet near the road to add parking, the government will give the landowners additional land toward the water.

But without the boulevard, or open nightspots and restaurants, it's unlikely locals will be flocking back anytime soon, and some business owners are concerned about plans by the city and county governments to pull out of Old Town.

City officials are negotiating a deal to buy the Coast Electric building on U.S. 90 to consolidate the city's services, and county leaders have expressed interest in building a permanent complex away from the beach and Old Town.

Jolynne Trapani and her husband, Tony, relocated their family's well-known eatery to U.S. 90 in March, but they are planning to go back to Old Town - someday.

Trapani understands a governmental exodus could mean the loss of dozens of professional offices that drew employees and visitors to Old Town, but if city and county officials return soon, she said, it would help speed the revitalization of the business district.

"There's not too many places like it around anymore," she said. "It had a 'Little House On the Prairie' feel to it, with the historic buildings, oak trees, a historic courthouse and people in suits walking the sidewalks doing business."

What Katrina did

Old Town was built on a bluff - more than 30 feet high in some places - where French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne hunted game in 1699. Katrina gobbled up businesses, and scooped out massive chunks of land. The asphalt road was pulverized.

The series

The Sun Herald this month continues its 30 Communities in 30 Days series, which looks at how area neighborhoods are recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We will update these stories every six months.