GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - There's no doubt that Grass Lawn sits majestic once again. There's also no doubt that it sits empty most of the time. Despite a goal of having it once again be the scene of plenty of weddings and parities next to an avenue of oaks, that hasn't happened.
Since it reopened almost three years ago, Grass Lawn has hosted just two events in 2013, 12 in 2014 and only three so far this year. It has sat empty for more than 900 days.
"I think it's been underutilized. It's being used more and more for things like weddings and receptions. We're trying to balance the use and the amount of traffic there with the associated surrounding neighborhood as well," Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes explained.
One of those neighbors has sued the city, claiming it broke its own ordinance by rebuilding Grass Lawn and not classifying the new structure as residential. That case is now in the hands of the state supreme court.
Since it opened in July of 2012, Grass Lawn has generated only about $30,000 in revenue for the city. Hewes defends that number.
"It was not so much built as a revenue generator, as an emblematic icon of the city that is one of the few remaining pieces of architecture along our beachfront," Hewes said.
Grass Lawn does take money to operate though. Every year, the insurance bill on the home totals more than $10,000, and the power bill runs about $6,000. That's about $48,000 over three years, so Grass Lawn is a drain on the city coffers. That doesn't include maintenance costs, like hiring a crew to pressure wash the home.
That's why one city council member voted against the plan years ago. She is Ella Holmes-Hines.
"I had hoped that we would just put a marker there and not rebuilt it. I was also very concerned also with leasing it out, because I knew that it would not please the neighbors," Holmes-Hines explained.
That lease is held by Coast restaurateur Rob Stinson, who has been responsible for booking events at Grass Lawn for the past year and a half. For every event held there, the city gets 6 percent of the proceeds, and Stinson pays the city $1,000 a month for the lease. He is confident the future is bright.
"I think it will be successful, and I intend to make it that way, so I really hope that we get the chance to follow through for another year or two and show what we can do for the bottom line," Stinson said.
Help could be on the way for that bottom line, according to the mayor.
"We're going to turn a portion of Grass Lawn into a tourist information center in concert with our CVB, our convention and visitor's bureau, so folks can come right off of 90 and learn about the beautiful facility," Hewes said.
While almost every city official insists that Grass Lawn is crown jewel for the City of Gulfport, they also admit that the marketing effort to make people aware of that has not been very good.
How do I know that? Just take a look at the city website, and it's very hard to find Grass Lawn. Grass Lawn is on the city seal, but not on the website's front page. Click on city attractions. It's not there either. You have to click on city events, then click on community centers and then scroll to the bottom of the page to find Grass Lawn.
David Parker is the city economic development director, and he says change could be on the way.
"I think there are plenty of things that we can do better, and that's definitely one of them. Not just promoting Grass Lawn on our website, but promoting economic development," Parker said.
Brent Warr was the mayor when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, washing Grass Lawn out to sea. He spearheaded the effort to rebuild it using FEMA money, a state grant and insurance proceeds. For him, there's no looking back.
"It was the right thing to do. If we had to do it over again, we'd do the same thing. It needs to be used, and I'm certain that it will be. I understand that there is an energy now to get it used, and that's all that really needs to happen," Warr said.
Despite the questions surrounding Grass Lawn, many people who use the beach are glad it's back. One of them is Sam Maschinski.
"I think it was a great idea. Anytime you can restore the past is a good idea. I think it's well maintained, and it looks historically accurate. I think they did a great job," Maschinski said.
Stinson added that his company has created a new website to help promote Grass Lawn. It's called historicgrasslawn.com.
Meanwhile, a date has not been set by the state supreme court to hear the lawsuit involving the reopening of Grass Lawn.