I did something Wednesday afternoon that I’d never really imagined myself doing. I spent a perfectly relaxing, enjoyable couple of hours hanging out in downtown Gulfport.
Then again, it had been a while. In the early to mid-1990s I used to cover the city for the Sun Herald. This was during the first wave of Coast casinos, and Gulfport had spooned out a moderate portion for itself — the Grand, the Copa — compared with its gluttonous neighbor to the east. The big development then was the city’s annexation of Orange Grove and other communities north of Interstate 10, which seemed to orient development prospects away from the beach. Gulfport was clearly aiming for a more diversified economy.
But the diversification, and much of the economy, never seemed to seep into downtown. I wrote a story about revitalization efforts there around 1994, asking, in essence, whether Gulfport’s downtown would ever be much more than a dull collection of turn-of-the-19th-century office buildings, bank branches and Triplett-Day Drugs. During the day, workers huddled in their offices. When night fell, they went home. The streets were empty and lifeless, 24/7/364, granting an exception for Fat Tuesday.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when, upon crossing U.S. 49 from the east, I encountered signs of … well, life. A bar and restaurant on one corner. A ground-level bar on another. Wonder of wonders, a PJ’s Coffee, right there at 14th Street and 49. Whaddya know — a Third Place. I settled back, enabled the WiFi, sucked down a couple of frozen coffee things to bide the time during a software update and enjoyed the air conditioning.
A little later, to take the edge off the coffee, I strolled around the corner to Fishbone Alley and popped into Kelly’s Sports Pub for a beer. (OK, two.) Nearly every bar seat was taken. “Not bad for 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon,” a man near me observed. Happy Hour was happy. I’m not saying Fishbone Alley is a world-class tourism destination. But, having lived in Nashville and worked next to Printer’s Alley, Fishbone’s model, I can say it’s comparable. Give it a couple of years, a few more murals and a little more bar diversity, and you’ll have something.
Downtowns on the Coast have always suffered from the peculiarities of the landscape, meaning: It’s hard to develop a city center when your region hugs a coastline. Ropes don’t have hubs. If you define a downtown as your city’s center of commerce and nightlife, beachfront cities generally devote their energies toward the beach, as Biloxi has. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just a choice.
But Gulfport, having invested far less in casinos than Biloxi, can benefit from a rebirth of its actual downtown, which the city has smartly designated a historic district — think Charleston, Savannah or even Mobile. The Markham Building, OK granted, needs work. But plenty of other buildings have been nicely restored in the post-Katrina years, and just in time for a national trend toward fresh blood and money occupying affordable, historic urban cores.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Gulfport’s a long way from becoming a mini-Charleston. But a mini-Mobile? That’s more realistic, and wouldn’t be a bad goal at all. Most important, a dozen years after a catastrophe that might have set other places back decades, Gulfport has taken the opportunity to transform its downtown into something better than was there before. Not bad, I thought toward the end of my second frozen coffee thing. Not bad at all. I’m chilling in downtown Gulfport, and for maybe the first time ever, I actually do wish you were here.