Harrison County may be making a 180 degree turn. Instead of demolishing the downtown Gulfport library, the hurricane ravaged structure may be rebuilt.
For a long time, saving the waterfront library was considered impractical and impossible. And then, Harrison County and its library board got a report that said despite the shattered windows and the water logged books, the downtown Gulfport library was structurally sound. Larry Benefield says that report may have changed everything.
Before he showed up at the Highway 90 library, warped magazine racks flew out of a second story window. They portrayed a vivid account of a 2005 hurricane that ransacked downtown Gulfport's library and shell shocked its administrators.
Benefield is the president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. On the initial days after the hurricane hit, supervisors and library board members surveyed the damage and said, "The state of mind we were all in was it's all gone."
Part of that realization was based on the fact that so much debris littered the library property.
Mike Wilson heads up the Harrison County work crew that's finally cleaning up the mess.
"You can't see the potential of the building if you can't see the building," he said.
With so many shattered windows, and shattered dreams around the library, seeing the potential of building seemed impossible. So a plan was devised to knock down the library, and move card catalog cabinets off the beach. However, Supervisor Larry Benefield says in the last couple of weeks, that plan has basically been scrapped.
"I mean there's nothing wrong with this," he said, looking at the cement roof that covers the library building. It survived the storm pretty much intact.
In fact, engineers determined the cement beams holding up the downtown library were as solid now as they were before the hurricane. So, instead of relocating to another Gulfport property, Harrison County is taking a serious look at saving a piece of its past. That piece just happens to be across the street from the Mississippi Sound.
"The state of mind I think is even better now that we do want to salvage some things from the past. And we think hopefully that this will be one of them," Benefield said.
The city of Gulfport owns the land where the library sits. Harrison County owns the building. That won't change if the library can be salvaged.
"It's a great building. It's strong," said Wilson. "I mean it's right here on the beach and it took Katrina. Yes, I think it's got a lot of potential."
Supervisor Benefield hopes that potential will be realized if the second floor of the library can be rehabbed, and books can line its walls again.
"It's a landmark here. It's certainly a beautiful, old building to many," said Benefield. "It isn't always good to build new. To salvage some of the old may be a good thing for the future."
If the library is salvaged, books would be checked out on the second floor, so they would be out of the way of future storm surges. Architects are sketching potential uses for the first floor.
Harrison County is still going ahead with plans to build a second library north of I-10. It will likely be on a four and a half acre lot along Old Highway 49 near the Kenwood subdivision. The plan is to move library system's administrative offices into that facility. Benefield said the two projects could cost $10 million.
By Brad Kessie
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