GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - "If you took the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, mixed it with Seaside and Sandestin, put all that together," Brent Warr said as he stood on the balcony of a Gulfport VA building, you would have the mayor's vision for the 92 acre property.
That oak filled property sits on Highway 90. It's just west of Courthouse Road. Through its tree limbs is a breathtaking view of the Mississippi Sound.
Once upon a time, this property belonged to Gulfport. But around 1918, the city gave it to the federal government to support U.S. troops in World War I. This picturesque spot is where the Veterans Administration opened a military hospital. For almost 90 years, men and women wounded in battle were treated at facilities on Gulfport's waterfront.
When the 21st century started, two things happened. First, the VA decided to streamline its operations. The Gulfport facility was one of the casualties. It would close, and its services would move to the Biloxi VA. Then, Hurricane Katrina blasted the coast. The 92 acre federal property got hammered.
The federal government came up with a plan. It would deed the property back to Gulfport. Mayor Warr jumped on what he considered a chance of a lifetime.
Warr saw an opportunity to use the land to re-energize Gulfport's economy. He demanded that nine VA buildings be rehabbed by the feds at a cost of $35.9 million. Why make that demand? Saving the buildings, he was told, would designate the property an American campus. And that would make it historic. It would then be eligible for 60 cent on the dollar tax credits - an enticing opportunity, Warr thought, for future developers.
The mayor has his hands all over the redevelopment of the VA property. He stops there at least a couple of times a week. Consequently, many of the workers recognize him, and say hi to him. Warr watches those work crews peel away storm damage. As they do, he sees unique construction from the past, and enticing development opportunities for the future.
"We owe it to this city. We've been through so much. We need to have something like this here," Warr says.
In the chapel at the southern tip of the property, the mayor sees Gulfport families exchanging vows. He also sees theater opportunities. If a developer knocks down a back wall, a pulpit can become a stage. And the chapel, Warr says, can host weddings and plays. Hotels, restaurants, shops, apartments and homes could all be intertwined, the mayor believes, at the old VA location.
On June 2, Gulfport will elect a new mayor. Warr will leave office. What the VA property becomes will be out of his hands. He's leaving the city a blueprint of his vision (click here to see it posted on Gulfport's website). With the help of designers like Andres Duany, the second draft of a master plan for the 92 acre parcel has been created. That plan calls the VA property "the centerpiece of this important redevelopment project."
How important is it? Just ask the mayor.
"This is the kind of place," Warr said from that rebuilt VA balcony overlooking the water, "that when people come from all over the world to do business here, to visit here, to eat here or stay here, they're going to leave, and they're going to tell people about what a great place there is on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in particular in Gulfport."