BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - East Biloxi leaders said an increase in Hispanics moving into the community is part of what's driving a population upswing.
Growing enrollment is what led the Biloxi School District to move kindergarten and first grade classes from Gorenflo Elementary to Nichols Elementary next year. Nichols was closed in 2010 because of the dwindling population in East Biloxi.
Ward 1 Councilman George Lawrence said over the last few years, the number of Hispanic students attending elementary school in East Biloxi has jumped from 30 students to 130 students.
After years of not having many neighbors, East Biloxi residents said things are starting to change.
"New faces and somewhat people returning, but overall, I can see growth," said Biloxi resident Ursula Staten.
That growth is welcome news for the Hope Community Development Agency, which has been building and rehabbing homes for years to lure people back to East Biloxi. The area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"People are starting to move back into the area," said Bill Stallworth, Hope CDA Executive Director. "We're looking at how some of the vacancy rates are going down. Some of the homes are being now occupied. A number of people are starting rehab, and we're seeing some new construction sites going up as well. So, things are on the slight upswing here."
Officials said the upswing is shifting the demographic makeup of the community.
"Right after the storm, there was basically an even divide between the black and the white with a small population being Vietnamese and Hispanic," Stallworth said. "The Hispanic population is starting to grow a lot more. Now, we're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to 10 percent Hispanic population in the East Biloxi area. Equal portions, about 35, 35 black and white, and the rest are Vietnamese."
Stallworth said an issue is that while more people are coming to live in East Biloxi, few businesses are setting up shop.
"In our community because we don't have as many retail opportunities. Dollars go outside the community," said Stallworth. "So, we're really working hard to try to make sure that now we attract these businesses to capture, recirculate the dollars and make the economy stronger. Hopefully, we can get some additional grocery stores and other things in the area."
Stallworth said a stronger economy makes a stronger community. Hope CDA officials say there is a need for more multi-family housing in East Biloxi that is not public housing.