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Gulfport Council to Vote on "Master Developer" for VA Property, which is Still Not in City's Control

by Keith Burton

The Gulfport City Council today is slated to vote on hiring a "Master Developer" whose primary mission is to help guide the development of the former Gulfport Veterans Hospital, land that the city has yet to receive control or ownership.

The Sun Herald in a story in their July 17 edition is casting the vote by the Council as a "titanic effort of reconstruction," which cannot be farther from the truth and is more propaganda than actually news. The actions by the council on approving a "Master Deverloper" today will not mean the city is ready to rebuild, from Katrina's damages, or even start work on the VA site.

Over a year ago, the city received word from the VA that the land, some 92 acres that extend from the beach to north of the CSX railroad tracks east of downtown, would be turned over to the city. That transfer of ownership has not yet happened and no specific date has been announced by the VA. Regardless, Mayor Brent Warr has pushed forward a plan to hire a "Master Developer" firm to come up with a plan for the site.

In March, Warr convinced the City Council to establish a committee to seek out several developers to help with the project. This action followed advice provided by some members of the Gulf Coast Business Council, an influential private group whose mission is to "guide public policy." Some of the members, could see potential gain as a result of the decision. The key architect behind the "Master Deverloper" plan is Hancock Bank President George Schoegel, who is also a member of the Gulf Coast Business Council and was on the Mayor's committee that has made the recommendations to the council on the master developers under consideration.

The City Council and the public has been left out of the loop regarding the committee's deliberations, which has some on the council questioning the process. The newspaper, which you would expect to criticize the secrecy, instead makes excuses.

"A confidentiality agreement that prevented committee members from updating the council during the selection process has caused some council members to question the need for secrecy and why the council was cut out of the loop.

"The confidentiality agreement was more of a request from the developers, rather than the committee," Warr said Monday."

It should be noted that the city council did not pass a resolution allowing the establishment of the committee nor did they ever approve a confidentiality agreement. The newspaper doesn't even question the secrecy and the real possibility that the committee may have operated improperly. A committee involving a public issue should not go behind closed doors or keep information from properly elected officials as has been reported. Several city council members question how the committee even came up with the recommendations.

The Sun Herald colors its report on the mayor's committee as "the who's who among the state's movers and shakers," but this select group should have realized that confidentiality on an issue of such importance darkens the process. The Sun Herald reports the members of the committee are: Sen. Billy Hewes III, Rep. Frances Fredericks, Councilwoman Libby Milner-Roland, Mayor Warr, Leland Speed, former director of the Mississippi Development Authority, and George Schloegel, the chairman of the board at Hancock Bank, Demery Grubbs, chaired the committee, but was not a member. Grubbs is a private financial consultant.

While it may be wise for the city to plan for the eventual turnover of the VA property, the process to date has left citizens in the dark. Public meetings to get citizens to comment on what the property could be used for have not occurred. Even members of the City Council have been concerned over the administrations lack of public involvement.

The VA property does have the potential, if improperly handled, of becoming a serious financial albatross for the  city if it does not find a way to finance development. But working outside of public visibility is not an indicator of success. While the VA has yet to turnover the property, expending funds for a project on lands not in the city's possession could later be a problem for the State Auditor's to resolve.

But in addition, the process to to date has the city turning over the future of the city and the VA lands to private developmental interests at a time the city should be looking first to the public's interests. The city could eventually end of leasing the property, at a profit, and that may what will happen, but such plans have yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, VA officials tell GCN that they routinely meet with Gulfport about the site. A determination of the what buildings should remain at the site have not been made. The VA has earmarked $35 million to clean up the property and remove unneeded buildings before turning title over to the city. Officials say there will be a ceremony when the turnover occurs. But no date has been set at this time, and the earliest it could happen is either late this year, or early next year.

More Information:

Road to Recovery - Sun Herald

Gulfport is a vote away from turning frustration into exhilaration - Sun Herald Editorial

Transfer of Title of Gulfport VA Hospital to Gulfport Still Months,or More, Away - GCN Exclusive

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