Grow Over Gulfport's Handling of the VA Property Transfer
by Keith Burton - GCN 12/9/07
The long delayed transfer of the former Gulfport Veterans Administration Hospital property to Gulfport has become a mystery over when the property, some 92 acres, will be turned over the city. And now, there are growing concerns about how the process is being handled by the administration of Mayor Brent Warr.
At this week's City Council meeting Warr was expected to present two companies he would like to hire to create a master plan for the VA property to the City Council, then the following week, ask the council to approve at least one of them. But the City Council Tuesday only received one bid for master planning on the VA site. It was from DPZ of Miami, according to Ward 5 Councilman Brian Carriere contacted by GCN Tuesday evening. The recommendation was to develop a master plan (concept) for the property.
"Once that is complete we could put together one or several RFP (requests for proposal) for developers to build something on the site," Carrier said in a response to a GCN email request. "The recommendation is also to engage a law firm out of Jackson that specializes in real estate transactions/negotiations to help us when it comes to land lease or sales contracts for the property as it is developed," said Carriere.
"No vote was taken today since we just received the information. We were informed that the city will receive $750,000 from an MDA grant to pay for this. As long as the contract stipulates that it not to exceed the amount, it would not be a problem. I do not have a timeline for when we may vote on this item but the earliest is obviously next Tuesday."
Many of the issues and potential development concerning the VA property has been conducted by the Warr administration without any significant participation from the City Council or citizens on what they would like to see done with the property.
In an interview Dec. 8, Carriere told GCN, "I still think we are jumping the gun."
Carriere, like several other city council members, believe both the council and Gulfport citizens have been shut out of the loop regarding the property, which if not handled correctly, could become an expensive albatross around Gulfport's financial ship.
The Gulfport VA in 2004 was slated to be shut down by 2010, but that was before hurricane Katrina slammed into the Coast. The buildings on the property, which fronts the beach along Highway 90, and extends back across the railroad tracks, were heavily damaged by the hurricane. As a result of the hurricane, the closure of the property was moved up considerably. The Biloxi VA is currently undergoing a mission expansion to take over much of the work once performed in Gulfport.
With the property free from use, a plan to transfer the site to the City of Gulfport was announced by Warr in July 2006 with considerable media fanfare. Warr has made repeated announcements since then as to the anticipated transfer dates, but none have born out.
Carriere, said on Dec. 8, that the city administration and officials with the VA have been meeting monthly on the site. He says the VA officials are pressing the city to provide them with a plan for the property. So far, that plan has not been realized.
Late last year, Warr announced that he had asked the Gulf Coast Business Council to provide some possible uses for the property. That resulted in presentation by Hancock Bank CEO George Schloegel, who is a member of the business council about finding a "master developer" to help turn the property into a combination commercial/visitor's complex and a park.
Warr then later sought out several developers, but Carriere told GCN that that process is virtually dead and that no "master developer" wanted the VA project.
"Since early on, I think the master developer process was premature," Carrier said. "All the hoopla (regarding the master developer process announced in the media) ended up going no where because ultimately, it was the wrong process."
Carriere told GCN that the Gulf Coast Business Council did come up with some good suggestions regarding integrating the development into the nearby neighborhoods, but he said that the residents in the area really don't know what is going on and neither does the city council. That secrecy is also indicative of the latest proposals coming from the administration
Until Tuesday's council meeting Carriere said that, "I honestly don't know what is going to be presented," "Unfortunately, we are out of the loop over what is happening to the property."
In Carriere's opinion, "The city has been very slow in responding to the VA on what to do with the property. The VA wants to know what buildings are to be saved and what needs to be torn down. I think they all should be raised."
The federal government has provided nearly $36 million to pay for demolition and debris removal at the property. The work also includes hazardous materials removal, which VA officials have told GCN in earlier reports, has slowed the work at the site.
But in a recent WLOX news report, the television station reported that VA officials are hopeful that the property transfer can occur sometime in the first quarter of next year. (Photo right: Gulfport VA-click on photo to enlarge)
GCN has been told that when the property is finally transferred, a ceremony with VA, state, federal and Gulfport officials will be scheduled, but there has yet to be a date announced, and work by construction crews at the site are still moving slowly.
In a report by GCN in December 2006, Schloegel told GCN that he hopes that the development of the large VA property will not become a financial albatross that could drain the city's resources in developing the site. Carriere is also concerned about that possibility. Carriere told GCN that the mayor continues to keep the city council out of the loop on important information, including that concerning the VA property.
"Information is power," Carriere said, "And Brent keeps a lot of information to himself."
Carrier told GCN that even the city council members do not know when and how some of the Katrina rebuilding projects will be undertaken.
"Obviously, there are a lot of behind the scene meetings," Carriere told GCN. "I don't know if any other mayor operates this way."
The Gulfport VA property lies in two city council wards. South of the railroad tracks the property lies in Libby Milner Roland's ward. The portion north of the tracks lie in Carrier's ward.
Warr is becoming increasingly sensitive to criticisms regarding progress on rebuilding and development in his city. During a recent WLOX appearance, reporters asked Warr about the slow process apparent in replacing the street lights on U.S. 90. Warr told the reporters, "I am not going comment on that until they (the light poles) arrive."
Warr, along with most of the city council, only came to office in July 2005, just weeks before hurricane Katrina. Since then, the mayor, who had not previously held public office, and the council, have endured an extended trial by fire as a result of the demands of Katrina recovery. While the VA property transfer represents an enormous potential value to the city, developers are clearly anxious to get their hands on the property.
In a September 2006 article published by Sun Herald-owned Journal of South Mississippi Business titled, “VA Property Could be a Plumb for Development,” Schloegel was quoted saying, “Developers will be salivating over it."
Warr told WLOX last week that the residents have no reason to worry about the inactivity at the VA property. Many residents are beginning to question why it is taking so long for the city to determine what to do with the property. "Warr would soon hold meetings and map out the appropriate uses of the VA property," reported WLOX.
But there are reasons to worry.
Regardless over what buildings are saved or torn down at the VA site, what is underground, or not underground, will be expensive for future development. That is because much of Gulfport's water and sewer infrastructure is outdated and dilapidated after decades of neglect. Almost every day, there are announcements by the city over water line failures and collapsing sewer lines. The city has not kept up over the years with upgrades to its water and sewer systems As a result, any major development at the VA site will take millions of dollars in water and sewer installations even offsite of the property. The underground problems also extend into the downtown central business district.
In the last ten years, Gulfport has not built a "lake tank" water tower to support additional water services. In contrast, most Coast residents have noted that Biloxi has constructed numerous new water towers in anticipation of its casino and condo growth, and in the city's recently annexed Woolmarket area.
But at some point, Gulfport will have to cease adding new developments as the city is close to overwhelming its existing system. In a sense, the lines on a graph over what can be added, and what services the city cannot provide will cross. The only way this can be addressed is by a major increase in water and sewer rates, something that the city of Long Beach recently announced. Without making the necessary improvements federal and state regulations come into play. Cities can face federal or state issued moratoriums on development in such circumstances.
Carriere told GCN that that line may have already been crossed as there are areas of Gulfport where no services are in place, and no money is available to add them and to permit development to occur.
What this means for residents in Gulfport, is that they are mostly in the dark regarding what is happening in their city, until now.
Revealing the Hidden Government - GCN Special Report