Development, schools continue to be hot issues
By MARY PEREZ
BILOXI --Expect another controversial year in Biloxi as the city continues to repair the damages from Hurricane Katrina and embraces many new opportunities.
The fight to grow the city north will likely continue to upset neighboring municipalities. The school district will need to shift students to other schools to balance the population. Keesler Air Force Base's new commander will oversee base repairs, including the rebuilding of more than 1,000 houses. Developers are rethinking their plans to build condos on the beach and still more developers are contacting the city nearly every day. The need for affordable and senior housing continues to be great.
All these issues were supposed to be sorted out when the city embarked on a comprehensive plan to develop Biloxi's roadmap to the future. In March 2007, the City Council chose a Philadelphia, Pa., firm with extensive experience working with coastal communities to draw the new comprehensive plan for Biloxi.
"We had to reject the bid," said Mayor A.J. Holloway. "It came in too high."
Instead of a total amount, the company bid in the $400,000 to $700,000 range. The Mississippi Development Authority, which is paying for the study, wants a specific price. Rather than getting started, the city has to rebid and begin the process again.
Here is a look at the big picture of where Biloxi is now and what challenges are ahead:
"Every day something good happens," said Holloway. The community center hosted its first Mardi Gras ball over the weekend and projects are starting across the city. Among the most anticipated are the Biloxi Lighthouse Park and Visitors Center, the Popp's Ferry Road extension and the rebuilding of the piers and marinas.
"We have an industry that's hurting there," Holloway said, noting that several charter boats have gone out of business.
"A lot of these projects we hope to be under way quickly in '08," he said. Most of the city wells are still running on generator and the streets, sewers, water lines and storm drains that were damaged in the storm surge will be replaced.
Even as the city rebuilds, it needs to prepare for future development. Holloway said he met with D'Iberville officials to try to reach an out-of-court agreement on land both cities are trying to incorporate. They discussed a compromise that D'Iberville originally rejected but later said it would negotiate.
An east-west corridor through Harrison County will take a long time, said Holloway, although a committee met with the governor in December to try to get funding for an environmental assessment study, which is the first step. Another bridge across the Back Bay also is being studied.
BILOXI --Biloxi School District
Enrollment in East Biloxi elementary schools is still down, said Superintendent Dr. Paul Tisdale. Gorenflo is at half of its pre-Katrina numbers, Nichols at 60 percent and Lopez at 70 percent.
Only 700 of the 1,300 military dependents, most of whom lived at the base, have returned. The buildup will be gradual over the next 30 months as housing opens at Keesler.
Although North Bay Elementary is using 10 modular units in addition to the 40 classrooms, "We're not overcrowded," Tisdale said.
More students attended the school before the storm and the pupil to teacher ratio is about 17 to 1, "which is what it is in other classrooms throughout the district. Capacity is almost beside the point. We're looking at pupil/teacher ratio."
At some point, he said, "We will have to rezone our elementary schools," and bus some students south of the bay. The question is, "which students and to which elementary school?"
Some parents object to this because they don't want their children going to a different school but Tisdale said more of a concern is the time classes start. The schools operate on a rolling basis with one-third starting at 7:20 a.m., the next beginning at 8:10 and the North Bay classes starting at 8:40.
At Tuesday's meeting, the board will consider moving ninth-grade students to the high school campus, the seventh-grade students into the junior high and the sixth-graders out of the elementary schools and into the seventh-grade building.
Tisdale said the move would make room for pre-kindergarten classes that could be financed by casino revenue from Biloxi casinos under construction or proposed.
Although the district has 50 fewer teachers after the storm, he said none were laid off and students have continued to excel, with the high school named a National Blue Ribbon School.
Keesler Air Force Base
Col. Greg Touhill said the current mission of Keesler is to "rebuild the base, renew the community and reload the Air Force," training personnel for missions around the world.
He and Vice Commander Col. Richard Pierce did a walk-through on the first three of 1,028 homes that are being rebuilt as part of the largest military family housing project in the history of the Air Force.
A Division Street gate that would move some of the Keesler traffic off Beach Boulevard is still conceptual, Touhill said, and would require federal government financing.
Condo projects in Biloxi were approved last year but never built. Mike Boudreaux, president of Gulf Coast Investment Developers in Biloxi, said he is optimistic more of these projects will begin this year.
"Construction costs have come down. Insurance has come down. Labor costs have come down," which he said was the biggest expense after Katrina.
Several condo projects, including Sea Breeze and Aqua, were redesigned to smaller units in the 500- to 850-square-feet range that are more affordable. Originally priced at up to $600,000, the new units sell for around $350,000.
Several developers are considering building combination condotels and hotels, Boudreaux said, with traditional hotel rooms on the lower floors and condotel units above.
Director Jerry Creel said developers who were waiting for the FEMA flood elevations are beginning architectural drawings and have target dates to begin.
"We have a lot of development happening in Biloxi," and Creel said he has constant phone calls, e-mails and visits from developers.
Work is under way all over the city, with Dillards opening this spring at the Edgewater Mall and the Popp's Ferry and Cedar Lake roads intersection in North Biloxi a continued hot spot. Creel hopes East Biloxi will "develop into the resort destination that everyone has envisioned."
He also sees residential areas in East Biloxi, especially around Division Street where the ground is higher. Commercial developments like casinos and apartment buildings can comply with the more stringent flood elevations and building codes in the higher risk areas, he said.
Biloxi Housing Authority
Director Bobby Hensley said by late January, the Biloxi Housing Authority will have homes to sell. "This is the first time we've done home ownership units," he said and the properties in East Biloxi are between two and four bedrooms.
"We're trying to keep properties affordable for people," which makes development north on Interstate 10 difficult until central sewer and water is available. "We definitely will be building more senior housing," he said, possibly on land near the beach at U.S. 90 and Brody Drive.
The authority also is looking at housing along Main and Division streets.
Holloway said between the casino numbers, the billion dollars of building permits issued since the storm and the Biloxi Bay Bridge reopening all lanes in April, "this all tells the rest of the county that Biloxi is indeed coming back bigger and better."