What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Monday, November 12, 2007

Smart Growth Is Smart for Post-Katrina Business and Community Development

by Ana Maria

In the immediate wake of Katrina’s complete and utter demolition and devastation of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast came discussions regarding how to rebuild and what that rebuilding would look like. Discussions surrounding land use issues began to hit the press fairly quickly.

Of course, no one imagined that rebuilding would be thwarted almost entirely through Big Insurance deliberately robbing families and businesses of being able to rely on their homeowner and commercial insurance policies to cover the severe wind damage sustained over the 3-4 hours of hurricane force winds that beat down our properties long before the water arrived.

Nevertheless, out of the woodwork came the usual suspects from developers with profit at any cost to the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) prototypes, both of which the local papers were reporting.

At the time this public discourse began, I was sitting quite comfortably in my lovely apartment in the heart of Silicon Valley, Calif., in a complex with “three resort-style pools, unwind[ing] in the fitness center, sauna or one of three spas, or simply stroll[ing] along serene water scapes and lakes.” I like convenience, beauty, and as many comfort creatures as I can afford at any moment in time.

Personally, throughout my time in San Jose, Calif.—the tenth largest city in the nation, I worked side-by-side both community leaders and developers on a number of high profile and controversial projects—projects for which I was helping to make happen and others, well, to derail.

As of late, the development issues making headlines have run the gambit from the appalling and galling to the thank GAWD! One incident in particular is easy to see both the appalling/galling and the thank GAWD sides.

In this incident, “no permits have ever been taken out with the county or city and no site plan review has been approved” wrote the Sun Herald, “unpermitted work that has included digging canals, constructing levees and installing unauthorized water and sewer hookups . . . which apparently includes large parts of nearly 700 acres.” The negative result of this isn’t merely a matter of failing to file the proper paperwork. One man whose “50-acre parcel already is flooding at the slightest rainfall because of the landscape alterations” said "I just broke out in fear when I came back here and saw what they were doing. . . . I'm simply dumbfounded how something like this can happen."

The development is governed by both Hancock County, which has ordered a cease and desist order, and the city of Bay St. Louis, which "voted . . . to have electical power shut off to the Stennis Technology Park office building, and force its tenants to vacate it . . . and has ordered increased patrols in the development area -- and even hired a private detective to monitor the area south of the I-10, Highway 603 interchange, to make sure no unauthorized work continues.

How utterly appalling for the developers to come and act as if that the laws around here do not pertain to them. Callously and cavalierly, the men who own the companies and who are in cahoots in this endeavor have altered the landscape impacting Mother Nature. This environmental change is having a very real, immediately negative, and obviously visible impact on the surrounding neighbors. What gall!

Thank, GAWD, that the county supervisors and city officials are taking sweeping action against them—when they can find the owners who seem to be rather elusive.

On the other hand and on a fundamentally positive note, last week was the one year anniversary for the Silver Slipper casino on the western tip of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The casino has provided many women and men much-needed employment. Employees have told me that the casino provides good benefits—dental, eye, health,which are often non-existent in jobs today, particularly along the post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Slipper, as we locals call it, earned the tourism business of the year for 2007 from the county chamber of commerce.

They hope to begin building a hotel, a larger casino and "just a lot of wonderful amenities" in March 2008 and to open Dec. 31, 2009.

Plans call for an enlarged parking garage, two new restaurants, an entertainment venue for up to 700 people, meeting and banquet space for 500, a world-class spa and a wedding chapel overlooking the water.

Silver Slipper just opened "the only RV park on the beach anywhere on the Coast," [General Manager John] Ferrucci said, and the current 24 spots will expand to 38 by the end of January.

. . . He said Silver Slipper takes care of its staff so they in turn keep the customers happy. Every employee received a bonus the past three consecutive quarters and because housing continues to be a challenge, "Our company is working on building 50 single-family homes," Ferrucci said, and employees will have the first option to purchase them.
To all of this I say, “Halleluiah!” The Gulf Coast needs the business. We need jobs and revenue streaming into this area. The Slipper has been a very good corporate citizen. We need more good corporate citizens just like this. Being in parade country, if the Slipper can lead the parade, let’s have at it.

We also had another piece of remarkable developer news last week.
The developers called it paradise. Environmentalists called it a nightmare. Now, a state appeals court is calling it over.
Just before Katrina hit, the county supes voted to rezone “about 1,000 acres in beach areas, changing zoning from primarily single-family residential to a new designation called resort commercial.

When I first began to become aware of the issues surrounding this controversial development, what struck me most was the fact that neither an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) nor traffic analysis had been conducted. Huh? Maybe I’m just too big city for my roots, but those were two reports that HAD to be conducted first and foremost in San Jose before major zoning changes could begin to be considered.

In one instance, a group of citizens in South San Jose had been searching for land for the city to convert to soccer fields. Land availability is scarce in the nation’s tenth largest city with its recently attained population of one million. The unsafe traffic pattern and the draining of the water resources eventually helped to kill off that multi-year attack to get soccer fields for what would have essentially become the exclusive use for children of wealthier San Jose families. I gave an “amen and thank GAWD” to that conclusion.

In another instance in a wealthier small San Jose suburb, I worked on behalf of a developer to obtain permission for a mixed use development—residential housing and businesses. With the seal of approval from with city council, the senior citizen agency, and Sierra Club, and plenty of community leaders, the development was ready to go . . . except a group of citizens gathered enough votes to put the issue on the ballot—a favorite California tactic from any side of any political fence. They put it on the ballot, and the measure was defeated. Too bad.

With financial troubles well publicized, Hewlett Packard needed to sell off that large barren prime piece of real estate. Besides, like here, the entire region desperately needs more housing—particularly lower income high-density, condo housing (the price tags of which begin at the high end of Mississippi Gulf Coast homes today). In this instance, unfortunately, the NIMBYs—those who say Not In My Back Yard—won.

Who were these NIMBYs? They were folks who had come to the sleepy little suburb some 20 to 30 years ago, bought a home for the going rate and whose homes now have appreciated in value perhaps by 10 times. To put this into perspective, two-bedroom condos in 7-8 story buildings went for $900,000 in 2006.

These were condos. No yard, just condos.

When I asked one of the ladies who opposed this beautiful development, which I was working toward, what was the reason she opposed it, she confirmed her NIMBY status. She said that she didn’t care that there was a severe housing shortage. She got her home, that was all that mattered, and she wanted her town to quit evolving. A certified NIMBY.

Here in Hancock County, I hope that the board of supervisors can see their way clear to adopting smart growth approaches to development. There are plenty of examples of the variety of ways to implement smart growth. Rubber-stamping either reckless developers or NIMBY’s isn’t the way to grow out of our predicament here in the Katrina-ravaged region.

To those developers that say we ought to be glad simply because you are gracing us with your presence, I say, go talk with General Manager John Ferrucci at the Silver Slipper. His business is thriving, the community is happy the Slipper is here, and the company is smart. This place needs plenty of thriving businesses to employ the people who want to live here. It would have been great to have had the option to stick around in the area after I went off and got a few college degrees and a few years of experience elsewhere.

Instead, the sleepy little beach town region didn’t offer that option, and so many of us left.

To those residents in Hancock County and elsewhere along the Mississippi Gulf Coast who want only for the world to return to pre-Katrina days—period, I say “whatever are you thinking?!” To get it to those pre-Katrina days requires an investment of plenty of money. We’re not getting plenty of insurance money that is rightly due. What industries are even remotely interested in this area? What are you doing to entice developers to build, to invest, to create with us?

So much here is now as expensive as it was for me when I was living in one of the most expensive areas of the country. Goodness gracious! Plus, wages for many workers have hardly kept up with the inflation of the cost of living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even if we ONLY had the ambition of attaining August 2005 living conditions, plenty of financial investment is required.

Where that money comes from will depend on the kind of long range pay off developers will see possible for them. The kind of businesses that come to an area depend on the kind of workforce that can be attracted, which depends on what is offered compared to what is offered elsewhere, and depend on the kind of workforce that is already here. While I love this place, I have no illusion August 2005 is as good as it can get. Paleeze! As a native daughter, I always had far more ambition than to believe that the status quo—where ever it is—would be good enough for all eternity.

I believe in smart growth and have had the privilege of working in San Jose as senior city council staff member as well as assistant policy director with a progressive union think tank to positively impact a planned development called Coyote Valley, which has been years in the making and plenty more to go before businesses and residents actually move there.

Of course, if the area experienced the same devastation we have here, years in the making would not ever be considered a viable option in Silicon Valley . . . and neither is it here. Nimbyism, derelict developers, and smart growth are the paths we can take.

I hope for everyone’s sake that we seize this opportunity to entice great business prospects with appropriate smart growth parameters with an eye on making things significantly better, not merely the same, than pre-Katrina—better from a business AND a quality of life perspective . . . better so that Katrina’s devastation, which remains all around us today, gives way to our dreams of a new, thriving, environmentally sound, AND economically vibrant region of tomorrow and for generations to come. Smart growth is the smart approach for Post-Katrina business and community development. In the meantime, too many families and business owners are hurting. So, let's get to it quickly.

© 2007 Ana Maria Rosato. All rights reserved.
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