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Transfer of Title to Gulfport VA Property Still Months, or More Away
by Keith Burton - GCN  7/11/07

Plans underway by Gulfport Mayor Brent War to develop the site of the Gulfport Veterans Hospital will have to wait. GCN has learned that the expected turnover for the site, some 92 acres on the beach, is many months away.

Warr has made repeated announcements since last year over when the federal government would turn the huge complex over to the city, only to find out that the turnover date moves farther out than his public statements.

In an interview with GCN this week, VA officials say the property turnover will not happen this summer as announced last winter by Warr.

"There were tentative plans to turnover the site this summer," said Edwin “Tinker” Cassell, chief of community and public affairs for the VA Gulf Coast Veterans Healthcare System. "But now there are new tentative plans for perhaps late fall, but it could easily be next year."

Cassell said contractors are nearly complete on removing asbestos and other hazardous materials at the former hospital and VA officials are still meeting with Gulfport officials on what buildings to preserve at the sprawling site.

Cassell told GCN that, "Currently I am unaware of any turnover date at all."

The slow progress of the turnover is no doubt a discouraging word for developers anxious to get a hold of the property. Gulfport and a few private advisors with the Gulf Coast Business Council, have been meeting outside of the City Council and public view on the future of the property.

This past September, an article published by Sun Herald-owned Journal of South Mississippi Business titled, “VA Property Could be a Plumb for Development,” quoted Hancock Bank CEO George Schloegel saying, “Developers will be salivating over it."

Since then, Warr has sought a "master developer" to help the city decide how to build out the site once it is in the city's hands. But the meetings have gone under the public radar. In a Sun Herald story published this week, the newspaper reported, that "Councilwoman Libby Milner-Roland was the only council representative on the selection committee and the only member in on the discussions."

This apparently has drawn concerns by the other members on the council, reports the newspaper.

"The City Council should have been the ones doing the research and analyzing the property and the development firms, not a chosen few getting together in all of these closed meetings," said Councilman Brian Carriere. "I don't even know who is on this committee."

Such behind the door discussions on major issues in Gulfport are routine, according to numerous reports and comments by city councilmembers.

The public has yet to have a hearing on the land's transfer or use and the administration is clearly expending time, personnel and perhaps city money on the project, even though title is not yet in their hands.

Warr has repeatedly been criticized by councilmembers for not providing them information on major issues until the last moment. His announcement to seek a "master developer" this past February drew criticism then from Councilman Carriere.

City Council President Brian Carriere was one of two votes back then against the proposal. Carriere was unhappy with wording in the request that would allow the soon-to-be creator of the land use and development plan to later bid on construction jobs on the same site.

"To me, it seems like a real conflict of interest," Carriere reportedly said.

Mayor Brent Warr said City Hall wants a seasoned developer whose work is well known and someone who is "familiar with the city."

The other opposing vote was made by Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines who felt the community's voice would be muffled in the brainstorming, saying public hearings are tucked so far toward the end of the planning method that Joe Public's voice will hardly matter.

Warr has continuously received generally positive press and almost adoration from some in the news media. WLOX repeatedly reported this week that Gulfport already had the property under control.  VA spokesman Cassell told GCN that he had not heard the WLOX reports as of Wednesday late afternoon, nor did he say he had been contacted by anyone at the television station.

In GCN's story last December titled, "Revealing the Invisible Government," Warr is noted for seeking the guidance of the private group, the Gulf Coast Business Council for assistance in deciding what to do with the property. This group is made up of powerful business, industrial and private individuals, purportedly organized to "guide public policy." But the group is not registered as a lobbying organization, nor does it reveal its membership or what its members pay for dues.

The GCBC does, however, have very real political power and has direct influence on public officials. Among the organization's members are people that would have much to gain from how the VA property is developed.

Meanwhile, there is very little activity at the VA site. Late this spring, contractors arrived to remove a few of the buildings that were most damaged from Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.

The Gulfport VA Hospital was scheduled for closure prior to Hurricane Katrina. The closure process usually involves numerous public meetings, but GCN could find no record for such meetings on the VA's comprehensive website as it could on other properties that were closed. But as the property was so badly damaged, it was determined to move its activities to other VA locations and speed up a planned expansion of the Biloxi VA hospital. The Biloxi VA currently is undergoing a $310 million expansion. It is located just north of Veterans Avenue, which is where  RW Development plans a huge development.

During a city council meeting Wednesday evening, Warr presented the recommendations from his "RFQ Committee." The Request for Qualifications Committee recommendations, which included three companies, were tabled by the council for a future meeting. The city council members can choose to select one of the companies, or toss the list out and seek additional choices. The "Master Developer" is also to help the city with redeveloping the Harbor area and downtown.

More Information:

Revealing the Invisible Government: Holdup on V.A. Hospital Transfer to Gulfport, Armed Forces Retirement Home to be Rebuilt - GCN  Filed 12/1/06 updated 2/26/07

Warr Continues to be Out of Touch with Council, Plans to Unveil "Master Developer" - Sun Herald

Council Puts a Hold on Approving Master Developer - Sun Herald

Gulf Coast Business Council Applauds Itself: Touts Accomplishments - GCN Special Report

Vote on "Master Developer" for Gulfport VA Tuesday, Council Still Has Concerns - Sun Herald

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