Officials hope Ground Zero Blues Club brings growth to Biloxi as it did for Clarksdale

“Anytime that you bring people into a downtown area, which has experienced challenges economically, then you give it a chance to become a more sustainable part of the community,” Levingston said.
Published: Aug. 2, 2021 at 7:28 PM CDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - An international tourist attraction is being built right here in South Mississippi. For decades the City of Biloxi has looked for the right vendors and projects to re-imagine the Vieux Marche. Now, dubbed the District on Howard... it may have found the solution to the age-old problem.

Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club is slated to open in as little a few months in the old Kress Live Building in downtown Biloxi. The blues club was born in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale. Morgan Freeman’s international acclaim, coupled with the power of the blues, helped put Clarksdale on the map and could be a new catalyst for growth in Biloxi.

“It’s an honor to play there. Some of the greatest bluesmen ever have played there, you know,” said musician Deak Harper. “The fact that it’s in my hometown, and I get to play there, it’s a blessing.”

Clarksdale’s own Deak Harp knows firsthand what Ground Zero has done for his sleepy town.

“We’re trying to bring the blues enthusiasts into Clarksdale to enjoy the folklore of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil here while trying to provide an attraction that has been here forever. We’re just enhancing it and making it more inviting. Ground Zero has done that, you know, tenfold,” Harp said.

Even though those enthusiasts aren’t from our neck of the woods, they’re a large piece of the pie.

“We rely on our European tourism, and Holland, and Japan. They come from all countries,” Harp said.

“A large part of our tourism base, like 40-60% is international guests,” said Visit Clarksdale Executive Director Bubba O’Keefe.

“It’s because of blues music and without a doubt, Ground Zero is the big attraction,” he said. “That along with our Delta Blues Museum, which was the first music museum in the state of Mississippi. It was also the first museum dedicated to blues music in the world.”

The old days of the Vieux Marche are remembered by a very select few South Mississippians as the place to be in Biloxi. Now, many of the buildings sit silently empty, a stark contrast to the bustling downtown of years past.

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Posted by Ground Zero Blues Club Biloxi on Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Ground Zero Blues Club is what Biloxi’s elected officials and business leaders hope will be Ground Zero for growth in the quiet District on Howard. That seed was planted just two years ago.

“We’re remembering the heritage but we’re looking to the future,” Mayor Andrew “Fofo” Gilich said during The District’s ribbon cutting.

It’s much like the bright future that was in store for Clarksdale with the addition of the blues club.

“When Ground Zero opened, it really heralded the opening of other restaurants and music venues downtown and made our downtown a much more thriving and exciting place to visit,” said Crossroads Economic Partnership Executive Director Jon Levingston. “Mississippi is known as the home of the blues. Whether one considers that in the delta or any other part of the state, the blues, which is the progenitor to modern American music, to a large extent, is identified with our state. I think that identity is important to the Ground Zero brand.”

For Levingston, the rebirth of the unassuming city of less than 15,000 had begun, but it didn’t stop there.

“Downtown now has several loft hotels, Airbnbs, even above Ground Zero there are several lofts that people can rent for overnight stays,” O’Keefe said. “We just got a 20-room hotel called the Travelers Hotel that was built back in the ‘20s.”

Clarksdale’s rebirth leaves many in Biloxi with the hope that the star power of Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club and the sultry magic of the blues are just the right combination to awaken a downtown thirsty for revival.

“Anytime that you bring people into a downtown area, which has experienced challenges economically, then you give it a chance to become a more sustainable part of the community,” Levingston said.

Ground Zero Biloxi becoming a sustainable part of the Gulf Coastal community, O’Keefe said, means big things for the Clarksdale location too.

“Ground Zero Blues Club opening up in Biloxi is a satellite for us,” O’Keefe said. “To be able to share our tourists, our guests will be big in that part of the state. When we get connected with people, like we are with the Americana Music Triangle, which is from Nashville, to Memphis, to New Orleans, now Biloxi, up to Muscle Shoals, the most influential music area in the world... with Ground Zero there, you’re a partner with us.”

And the work taking place here in South Mississippi isn’t going unnoticed by our Delta Blues counterparts.

“I really applaud Biloxi’s efforts, and these developer’s efforts, to revitalize their downtown community,” Levingston said. “Downtowns are often the heart of any community. To make an effort like this and revitalize that important section, the historic part of the great city o Biloxi, is an effort that I applaud and encourage that they maintain and continue. i wish them nothing but the greatest success and good luck.”

That success and good luck also goes along way with musicians like Harp, who hope to make the trip south to the new Biloxi location.

“Now that there’s a new club in town down there in Biloxi,” Harp said, “and because I frequent that area and a few other clubs, I wouldn’t mind playing the new Ground Zero Blues Club. I’d love to bring some Clarksdale folks down there and entertain you guys.”

Ground Zero Blues Club Clarksdale partner Bill Luckett said that if all goes as planned, there’s a chance the Biloxi location could be open by early November.

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