Margaritaville Resort kicks off flurry of development in Biloxi

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Developers and city officials raised giant margarita glasses and toasted the opening of Margaritaville Resort Biloxi in June, and more celebrations and ribbon-cuttings are on the way.

Eleven years after Hurricane Katrina flattened many of the houses in East Biloxi and along U.S. 90, several new hotels, restaurants and attractions are going up or about to begin construction.

It’s about time, said Martie Bryant, who was among the first to build back on Oak Street after Katrina demolished her house.

“I lost everything I had,” she said, but it isn’t just the contents of her home she misses.

“This was the center of everything before Katrina,” she said of her East Biloxi neighborhood. A decade after the storm, the sidewalks and streets are still torn up and few houses and stores have been rebuilt.

“I’d just be glad to have a neighborhood and a (grocery) store,” she said. “There is nothing.”

She’s about to get something. Cranes could be moving in at the end of the year to start work on Foxwoods Resort Casino at Biloxi Pointe. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns the largest casino resort in the United States, is teaming up with businessman Chris Ferrara to develop and operate a $265 million casino at the end of Eighth Street on Back Bay. This is the tribe’s first casino outside Connecticut and the resort will have 500 rooms, several restaurants, a convention center and attractions.

Long before that, Harrah’s Gulf Coast hopes to see the Blind Tiger restaurant under construction on The Great Lawn south of its casino on U.S. 90. The City Council approved the master-plan update to allow Harrah’s to work with Thomas Genin, chef and owner of the Blind Tiger in Bay St. Louis and other restaurants, to build the popular eatery with sunset and water views.

As these developments go to construction, the $355 million infrastructure project continues throughout East Biloxi to repair or replace the water, sewer and stormwater pipes that went under water during Katrina. Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said the work south of the tracks near U.S. 90 will be done with much less disruption and fewer streets torn up at once than residents and businesses north of the tracks have had to endure.

City officials have other work to do in East Biloxi to see it thrive. For several years, the City Council has talked about finishing a road that would loop around all of East Biloxi. The east side is the final span that needs to be completed, and the plan is for it to connect to U.S. 90 down Pine Street, which now ends just north of Third Street and picks up again just south of Seventh Street.

“We certainly want to light up this site and the Pine Street corridor with commercial activity, jobs and entertainment,” Gilich said, “but we’re going to make sure that all of the funding is in place from all of the parties involved.”

Ferrara has pledged $7 million and rights of way across his land for the road, which is expected to cost about $22 million. The city still must finalize a $5.6 million grant from the state and get the financing to complete the loop.

Much of the commercial construction in Biloxi is along the beach, where a new Hyatt Place hotel on U.S. 90 should open soon, along with a new bowling alley and video arcade at Big Play Fun Park. The south side of Main Street, closest to the water, is being rejuvenated. A new Patio 44 restaurant is under roof and the former Santa Maria apartment building, which has sat empty since Katrina, is down to the studs and getting ready for a transformation into lodging where guests can walk to casinos, the marina and the baseball stadium.

In his weekly development reports, Biloxi Community Development Director Jerry Creel tells about the new tourist businesses being permitted and the diversification of the city’s economy. The City Council has approved several homes near the beach as vacation rentals and the city is looking to expand medical investment.

A proposed Health Care Industry Overlay District would provide state tax and other financial incentives for medical businesses locating within a five-mile radius of Merit Health Hospital in Biloxi, Creel said.

The building boom also is boosting the city’s general fund.

“Sales-tax revenues collected for the month of June again topped $1 million,” Creel reported. June was the fifth month this year the city’s sales tax exceeded $1 million.

“It is also the first time since 2005 that we have exceeded $1 million for five of the first six months of the year,” he said.