Biloxi tables Ohr board's latest funding request

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The city of Biloxi spent $3.5 million to purchase the property where the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art will sit.  According to a city spokesman, the museum board has already received at least three million dollars from Biloxi to help with construction costs.

Yet on Tuesday, Larry Clark stood in front of the Biloxi City Council and asked for another $1 million to finish the east side of the Ohr campus.

"We're a drag.  We're costing the city money," Clark conceded.  But, he also stressed that once it opens, the museum could mean $22 million a year to Biloxi's economy.

In just 14 months, George Ohr's pottery will have a new home.  And Frank Gehry's architecture will be dancing with the trees.

"We absolutely believe the Mississippi Gulf Coast will become an destination for people who never gave us a second thought before," Clark said.

But to finish the east campus, Ohr board members need more money from Biloxi.  So, they went to the city council, and requested another $1 million.  Chevis Swetman is a Biloxi banker, and a supporter of the museum.

"This is economic development in its purest form," he explained.

On this visit, their ally on the council was Lucy Denton.  She recommended the city's contribution be a more modest $500,000, "so that they can open up next year and we will have this remarkable museum that will end up making money for us."

However, in a tight budget year, only the capital projects ready for construction are being funded by the Biloxi City Council.  And with water and sewer rate increases on residents under consideration, council members decided to table any talk about giving Ohr board members the money they're after.

George Lawrence represents the area where the Ohr museum is being built.

"I'm all for the museum, but this year is a tough year to do it," he said.

The council agreed to put the Ohr request in its future projects file -- meaning when the museum board actually needs the money to complete its construction, it can come back to city hall and resubmit its request.

By then, the economy may turn around.  And that, Ohr supporters like Ron Peresich say, will put Biloxi in the perfect position to use the museum as a catalyst for tourism.

"And anything we can do to increase revenues helps everyone," Peresich told the council.

The project next door to the Ohr museum is where the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum is supposed to be built.  But that construction project is on hold until archaeologists determine if the property is an historic burial site of the Choctaw Indians.  Because of that delay, the city council pulled $1 million for the seafood museum out of next year's budget.  It will be reinstated in October 2010, if construction is ready to start.

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