State Politics

Centennial Plaza, other projects could hinge on tax credit bill

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/FILE 
 The chapel at the south entrance to Centennial Plaza in Gulfport would be renovated as part of redevelopment plans. Developer Stewart Juneau of New Orleans, who announced the project in August 2014, says moving forward hinges on state tax credits the Legislature is considering whether to replenish.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/FILE The chapel at the south entrance to Centennial Plaza in Gulfport would be renovated as part of redevelopment plans. Developer Stewart Juneau of New Orleans, who announced the project in August 2014, says moving forward hinges on state tax credits the Legislature is considering whether to replenish.

Centennial Plaza development in Gulfport, downtown revitalization in Biloxi and other projects across the state could hinge on whether the Legislature decides to replenish historic tax credits.

State Sen. Sean Tindell of Gulfport said Monday he is "confident" a tax-credit bill will pass near the end of the legislative session this spring. He said the biggest question is what details the bill will include.

The House bill adds $60 million in credits, while the Senate version adds $40 million.

The Senate version also caps tax-credit spending at $8 million a year and excludes residential properties. Tindell expects a conference committee to hash out the differences and propose a final bill for a vote.

The original tax-credit bill the Legislature passed in 2006 offered $60 million in credits, included homes and did not set an annual cap. Those credits have been depleted.

"We are thrilled that there is the prospect of getting our tax-credit program funded again," said Lolly Barnes, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust. "It's going to benefit communities across the state.

"For the past year, these rather large projects that depend on the credits have been on hold."

Barnes hopes the Legislature passes a bill that includes residential properties and excludes the annual cap.

She said a cap could inhibit large projects such as Centennial Plaza because of uncertainty over whether future phases would be funded. She also said historic preservation of homes is important to neighborhoods. Preservation, she said, does not happen only around commerce.

The Gulfport Redevelopment Commission, the city's urban renewal agency, and New Orleans developer Stewart Juneau announced plans in August 2014 for redevelopment of Centennial Plaza, the old Veterans Affairs property on U.S. 90.

Juneau recently told the Sun Herald a Holiday Inn Resort is still committed to the project, but he said he can't move forward without the tax credits.

The federal government spent $39 million renovating the exteriors of 10 buildings on the oak-shaded property before deeding it to the city after Hurricane Katrina. The property was originally developed in 1917 for Mississippi's centennial celebration, but World Ward I derailed those plans.

In addition to the hotel, Juneau's le Triomphe Property Group plans to renovate the interior of an old chapel at the property's entrance, and secure tenants for two other buildings. Miles of trails and sidewalks, plus roads and other infrastructure, also are planned, along with an open-air market and stage on the central parade grounds.

Juneau said the state tax credits represented about 30 percent of project equity, and 10 percent of the total project cost of $40.5 million.

Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes said he thinks the old Markham Hotel downtown will be redeveloped only if the tax credits are available.

"Sometimes, it's the difference between whether people decide to take a leap on these projects or walk away from them," Hewes said. "It's a lot more difficult to renovate existing and older properties than it is to build something new."

Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the city needs state tax credits for mixed-use development downtown, which would include apartments, retail and offices.

"We are definitely encouraged by what we've seen happen with this bill," Creel said. "We would certainly be looking at that as a vehicle for helping our downtown redevelopment initiative."

Barnes said the credits also could be used to redevelop historic buildings such as the old Threefoot Building in Meridian and the J.J. Rogers Building in Tupelo, which was once a cotton mill. Houses are being renovated in Mill Village, built for workers at the Tupelo Mill.

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