By the Way

Secrecy surrounds mega-deals on Gulfport's public property



I wasn't the only one caught unaware by legislation the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission sought so it could continue signing long-term leases with developers for public property on the waterfront.

As the councilman for the ward where all these proposed developments are located, Ricky Dombrowski was more than a little peeved that neither the commission nor the administration told him the legislation had been filed.

“We've already got the bills in motion and, quite frankly, I didn't get a phone call,” Dombrowski told the GRC and administration at a City Council meeting Tuesday. “Mayor, you didn't call me. You can smirk all you want, but you didn't call me.”

The council and the GRC got it all ironed out, but in the process council members demanded more accountability from their urban renewal agency.

GRC has operated in privacy for most of its existence. But that is beginning to change as the group's projects grow in magnitude and expense. Mayor Billy Hewes said Tuesday the GRC's proposed projects on the taxpaying public's behalf  total $400 million in value.

The city deeded over waterfront land to the GRC where a casino, the Mississippi Aquarium,  Centennial Plaza and other developments are planned.

The GRC first formed in 2008 to develop the old Veteran Affairs property on U.S. 90, known as Centennial Plaza.

For a number of years, chairwoman Carole Lynn Meadows insisted the GRC could meet privately. At some point, the GRC realized or was informed that the board is a public body required to provide notice of, and access to, its meetings.

Recently, for a very brief time, the Sun Herald received notices of GRC meetings. Those notices  ended abruptly. The meetings were held on no set schedule at the old renovated county courthouse on Cowan Road.

Tuesday, the council demanded as part of  bylaw changes that the GRC hold regular meetings on the second Tuesday of  each month at city hall.

Even with this change, much of the GRC's business will continue to be conducted in private. State law allows public boards to go into executive session for the prospective purchase, sale or leasing of lands, which about covers the GRC's business.

The five-member board prefers to seal its deals, then unveil plans on site with fanfare and speeches. Most recently, Gov. Phil Bryant joined the GRC and council members for the big downtown aquarium reveal.

Interestingly, the GRC let the public in on its chosen designer for the Mississippi Aquarium – PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Mo. – before negotiating a contract with the firm.

At the meeting Tuesday, GRC attorney Steve Hendrix said the agency is currently negotiating a contract for an elevated restaurant where the old White Cap used to be in Gulfport's harbor. And who would own this restaurant on valuable public property?

The public does not know. Hendrix said he would check to see if he could reveal the developer selected and clue in the Sun Herald – and the public.

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