Mississippi Building: Main Street Mends a Broken Coast

Five Years After Hurricane Katrina

Bay St Louis MuralWhen Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in August 2005, its devastating winds, 28-foot storm surge, and 55-foot sea waves devastated coastal Mississippi. Estimates put the destruction of buildings along the coastline between Gulfport and Biloxi at 90 percent. In Waveland, considered “ground zero” for the storm, the entire downtown was wiped out - hardly a brick or a beam was left standing along the town’s major commercial corridor. In other communities, the primary challenge was clearing eight feet of debris from the buildings and businesses that did survive. And now, with stingy insurance companies and federal funds still a factor, the specter of an oil-slicked, barren gulf threatens the gains made in the five years since the storm.

Yet the combination of determined business owners, passionate community leaders, loyal citizens, and a comprehensive Main Street revitalization strategy also packs a powerful punch.  Aided by a strong network of Mississippi Main Street organizations and steadfast support at the state level, the region’s downtowns are making a steady comeback - without losing the character and charm that makes them so special.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, an outpouring of support from Main Street programs across the nation brought a tide of support to affected areas. Soon after, waves of funding and technical assistance flowed to Mississippi, enabling the state to hold extensive, high-level community charrettes to visualize the Gulf Coast’s recovery. Subsequently, the Mississippi Main Street Association received federal funds to convene resource teams that worked with stakeholders in Hancock County (Waveland and Bay St. Louis), Picayune, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula to formulate concrete rebuilding plans.

In each town, the roadmap to recovery is unique, a reflection of the community’s strengths and challenges, resources and opportunities. But the overarching strategy is largely the same: applying the Main Street Four-Point ApproachÒ to effect the holistic, community-driven revitalization of historic downtowns.

Let’s take a look at how a few of those communities have forged ahead.

Gulfport

Gulfport streetscape rendering

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was involved early and deeply in the effort to bring a Main Street program to Gulfport following the storm. That work has clearly paid off. Today, downtown Gulfport is being transformed by major public works and exterior rehabilitation projects, guided by the Gulfport Main Street Association.  A $4.4 million façade grant program - the largest in U.S. history - has given more than 80 downtown buildings a facelift, providing consumers and potential entrepreneurs with plenty of reasons to do business in downtown Gulfport.  Interior/exterior rehabilitation projects have brought important commercial buildings back to life, including the historic Hewes and Toggery buildings, and created a mix of retail, residential, and office space opportunities downtown. Also transforming the community is a $7.6 million streetscape project, which includes a plan to restore a historic boulevard with a palm-lined median that pays tribute to its 1940s-era status as the main coastal gateway into Gulfport. These streetscape improvements are being combined with a complete overhaul of downtown’s water and sewer infrastructure to meet the needs of current and future developments. Gulfport’s downtown is now a lively business district, with a burgeoning nightlife, a scene that has been lacking for decades.

Peter
This annual celebration of arts, culture, and crafts is a huge draw for the Gulf Coast region.

Credit: Hancock County Main Street

Ocean Springs

Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce has built downtown’s image around its dining and shopping appeal, which draws visitors from all over the world. Notable among its efforts is the Chamber’s www.OceanSpringsEats.com, a website that features a searchable database of the town’s more than 100 dining establishments. Prospective diners can find everything from outdoor and indoor seating options, to menus, to a complete nightlife listing. The first of its kind on the Gulf Coast, the website won Best Retail promotion at the Mississippi Main Street Association’s annual awards luncheon. Ocean Springs’ Peter Anderson Festival, now in its 32nd year, is an annual arts and crafts event that draws 100,000 visitors or more to revel in the region’s best pottery, artwork, and hand-made crafts.

Waveland

Waveland joined nearby Bay St. Louis to form the Hancock County Main Street program soon after the storm. As mentioned previously, Waveland’s downtown was essentially wiped out.  One solution was to utilize so-called Katrina cottages - small homes designed as an attractive alternative to FEMA trailers - as temporary incubator space for existing and new businesses while permanent space was being constructed. Development activity has really coalesced, with a former school about to open as a much-awaited civic center, a library opening just a month away, a rebuilt City Hall in the works, and a permanent business incubator in development.

Bay St. Louis

The
Bay St. Louis retains its lovable quirkiness, and the artists that live and work there wouldn't have it any other way.

Credit: Kent Kanouse

Bay St. Louis, a community of 8,200, had more than 100 artists residing in the downtown area before the hurricane. It has solidified its distinction as a slightly quirky, artsy downtown anchored by its county courthouse, while diversifying its appeal in creative ways. A monthly Second Saturday art walk celebrates the vibrant art scene, for example, and the town’s 64-year-old community live theatre is weeks away from its grand-opening gala in its first permanent home since Katrina. A new farmer’s market and community garden have transformed vacant lots downtown and attracted involvement by businesses, school children, and community groups. The town square - located smack in the heart of Bay St. Louis - was spared a parking lot fate through a creative land swap that shifted the county’s plans away from the square and toward an underutilized parcel owned by the City. Even Beach Boulevard, where only one business has braved the beachfront, is on the verge of a breakthrough. Next month, a much-loved local restaurant, Trapani’s, is set to break ground at its pre-Katrina location on the Boulevard, leaving behind its current digs on the Interstate. As the only restaurant to return to the waterfront, it sends a powerful signal to the community that Bay St. Louis is open for business.  

Gulf Coast Mississippi’s decision to grow its future by cultivating existing assets seems to be working. Natasha Ruetten of The Buttercup Café in Bay St. Louis summed it up this way, "It seems like it's really coming together finally," On focusing investment downtown she noted, "That's the heart of the city.  If you don't have your heart, then where are you going to go from there?"