By Keith Burton GCN 7/7/08
When a majority of Gulfport’s City Council approved a resolution April 15 to establish Mayor Brent Warr’s Gulfport Development Commission, they created not a Development Commission as it is called, but an Urban Renewal Agency. They also opened a can of worms for the city.
The mayor and others want to say that the new Gulfport Planning Commission is to help manage properties primarily outlined in a series of architectural renderings of renowned Urban Planner Andres' Duany that Warr had commissioned. These drawings include five specific properties, that include Jones Park, the Ken Combs Pier, Sportplex, downtown and the former veterans hospital site. But the resolution submitted by the mayor and passed by the city council opens the door for much more. They have given this “Development Commission” all the powers normally held by the city to the commission to acquire additional property anywhere in the city.
State law requires any city that initiates the Urban Renewal laws declare a specific area as being blighted, or a slum area that needs renovation and renewal. The Urban Renewal law also accommodates the need to restore areas damaged by a hurricane..
But that is not what Gulfport did in their resolution. As the city doesn’t control the property at the VA at this time, the resolution passed by the City Council provided by Warr, makes no mention of a specific area to be the target of the Urban Renewal plan. Instead, using the fact that the city was declared a disaster area, the resolution names the entire city as the blighted, slum area as the focus of the city’s urban renewal plan. A plan that has yet to be formed, or established, which is another requirement by state law to operate an Urban Renewal Agency.
An Urban Renewal agency has a primary mission to redevelop blighted property, usually areas of substandard housing. It is not an agency that markets or promotes property, especially commercial-oriented property that could be managed or developed by private industry.
An urban renewal agency cannot operate as if it were an economic development commission, which is apparently what Warr had envisioned for the Gulfport Development Commission. The city hired a former economic development foundation director from George County to act as the director of their new commission, and Warr has recommended individuals that have experience on the Harrison County Development Commission, as board members. But they are not experienced in managing an urban renewal agency. The city's own website describes the effort as an economic development agency and its director holds the title economic development director. There is no mention on the city's economic development website that the Gulfport Development Commission is actually an urban renewal agency.
The state’s urban renewal law is extensive and it well defines the agency’s powers and responsibilities. There are steps that must be done to qualify for an urban renewal agency.
An urban renewal agency must have a plan that defines the area to be developed and also contains plans for the type and form of the redevelopment. The law requires these plans to be submitted to a city’s Planning Commission, public hearings to be called, and then the urban renewal plan must be approved by the City Council.
Warr should know that he faces several hurdles as this process outlined in state law is extensive and a requirement. He has faced continuous opposition within the Gulfport Planning Commission to his other plans not including the plans generated for the urban renewal projects that are required for an urban renewal agency. To that end, he recently sent a number of planning commissioners notices that they will not be reappointed and is currently seeking to replace the majority of planning commission members with supporters.
Warr has also been seeking a way to bypass the City Council over the development of properties, particularly the huge VA property. His plans for that property have not been visible and public hearings have not been held on what the public would actually like to see at the site. So far, he has only told the public what he envisions, with the help of Hancock Bank’s George Schoegel, who, as a member of the Gulf Coast Business Council, presented a development proposal last year for the VA site in a sparsely attended meeting at City Hall.
Remarkably, the city’s resolution establishing the city as a blighted and slum area doesn’t mention the specific areas that are blighted, but notes that the city fears that certain properties and areas around the blighted areas may “become blighted,” and that is why they feel the need to act. This is unusual wording for a blighted area.
But when the City Council established the mayor’s Gulfport Development Commission, they also vested in that commission all of the city’s urban renewal powers. They also began a process to move whatever properties are to be redeveloped into the commission’s control and even ownership, in behalf of the city. In effect, the commission takes control of the city’s redevelopment outside of full City Council influence. The City Council then primarily hears "courtesy" reports from the commission and does not direct the commission’s work. As cities are prohibited from operating a “Development Commission” as can counties, the state’s Urban Renewal laws do not allow for the marketing, rental and lease control of redeveloped properties as would a regular county development commission over its properties.
The purpose of urban renewal is to help restore areas to vitality, not to manage them. To do that, the law gives urban renewal agencies borrowing power. While the resolution that created the Gulfport Development Commission restricted the agency regarding funding, the state law is the governing control and the commission could later seize that power as the commission in the city’s establishing resolution said, “should be vested with ALL of the Urban Renewal Project Powers in the same manner as though all of such powers were conferred upon such Agency instead of the City of Gulfport’s Governing Authority.” The “governing authority” meaning the City Council. Among the powers of an urban renewal agency is the power of Eminent Domain.
Quoting the state law: "A municipality shall have the right to acquire by condemnation any interest in real property, including a fee simple title thereto, which it may deem necessary for or in connection with an urban renewal project."
Mayor Warr and the other two major news media, have recently been highly critical of some of the city council members regarding the acceptance of Warr’s appointments to the new Gulfport Development Commission. They particularly have objected to the rejection of Warr’s nominee George Schloegel by the council. Any urban renewal project is a huge undertaking for a city, there are clearly issues that have not been presented to both the council and the public regarding the establishment of the new commission. Questions that should be answered by the Warr administration and pursued by the Sun Herald, and WLOX, but have not.
The appointment of Schloegel and perhaps the whole nature of this commission should be questioned again by the council, as they are investing the city’s future into an unknown situation. The city has yet to establish a plan, or provide a true outline of its projects for urban renewal, and without those details, Warr’s appointments may be premature, unless there is some other agenda at work. Architectural renderings are not “plans.”
What has happened so far is that Warr has been successful in taking power normally held by the City Council, and a majority on the City Council did that themselves. It is becoming clear that Warr's development plans may extend well into the future. Warr, along with his supporters, may be seeking a way to continue to direct the development of these properties regardless of the outcome of the next city elections.