Long Beach hopes for renewed commitment to downtown area

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - Long Beach leaders uncovered another piece of their hurricane recovery puzzle Wednesday. The Whitney Bank held a groundbreaking ceremony to rebuild what Hurricane Katrina destroyed. That reinvestment is being called a sign that Long Beach is on its way back.

Whitney Bank leaders said the groundbreaking reflected their renewed commitment to the area. City leaders hope more businesses follow the Whitney Bank lead.

By next summer, a hotel construction project will be done, and Long Beach will have a Holiday Inn Express on Highway 90. The 80 hotel rooms are the kind of jolt this city needs to stimulate what Mayor Billy Skellie calls a slow and sometimes painful recovery.

"I'm not satisfied at all," the mayor said, referring to the pace of his city's rebuilding efforts in the downtown area.

When the mayor drives through the downtown area, he sees hurricane scars that just won't heal. Katrina dismantled four dozen business and office buildings in the downtown area.

John Walton is with Whitney Bank. His Long Beach branch was on Jeff Davis Avenue, before Katrina knocked it down.

"In many ways, there's a lot of question marks about what will go back there," Walton said.

Walton's Long Beach branch is moving north of the railroad tracks, because the downtown property is just too low to be rebuilt. But he remains confident that downtown Long Beach will heal.

"There's no doubt that there's a lot of potential in that area," he said.

Slowly, some of Long Beach's more familiar names are making plans to return to the city. For instance, Mayor Skellie said Barnaby's restaurant had a construction permit waiting to rebuild on Cleveland Avenue. K-Mart has also submitted paperwork to get a rebuilding permit. And Rob Stinson said he just completed engineering work to rebuild his restaurant next to the Long Beach Harbor.

"We just waited for the city to become ready. And now we're ready. So we'll move forward," he said.

Stinson is one of seven downtown merchants who's either built back, or applied for a building permit. That number may seem low. But to Mayor Skellie, it's a reason to let the world know, "Long Beach is going to come back."

Long Beach has CDBG money that it will use to redo downtown streets and sidewalks. The mayor thinks the infrastructure improvements could be a lure to bring a few more merchants to his city.