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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Hurricane Katrina wiped out most of the housing in East Biloxi, Mississippi. The question now is, what will go in its place? Will it be casinos, condos, affordable housing? One non-profit group has a master plan including all of the above. But some powerful developers have a different idea of the city’s future. Stephen Smith of American RadioWorks takes a look.
[Gordon Brigham at community meeting: Thank you all very much for coming. Let me just again get a sense, how many people are here tonight for the first time? ]
STEPHEN SMITH: Gordon Brigham takes a show of hands at an East Biloxi community center. He’s with a New York based non-profit group called “Living Cities.” Biloxi’s mayor hired the group to create a master plan for rebuilding East Biloxi.
Brigham is showing an early draft of the plan to homeowners. He wants them to consider living in a place that will look different and will be more affordable than the single-family bungalows they lost.
GORDON BRIGHAM: What they have known is, they had a little house, and in many cases, they had no mortgage because the house was passed down through the family. And that place is gone now. In some parts of that area, it’s just not going to be possible to build that house back.
Not possible because new FEMA flood regulations will make rebuilding a single-family home too expensive for many poor and working-class residents of East Biloxi.
Gordon Brigham says Living Cities will show them types of homes they can afford. The plan includes higher-density housing, like apartments and townhouses, combining residential and retail developments and creating mixed-income neighborhoods. All of it built above flood level.
BRIGHAM: Our job is to say ‘here’s the kind of city that’s coming and the city you can have.’
But there are other, powerful forces also mapping the future of East Biloxi.
[ Lenwood Sawyer: Here’s Imperial Palace, here’s Beau Rivage and then you come down in here’s where the Grand Casino Magic and . . . ]
Lenwood Sawyer is a Gulf Coast real estate agent and a seasoned broker of casino land deals. When Sawyer looks at a map of East Biloxi on his office wall, he doesn’t see affordable housing.
LENWOOD SAWYER: In my, you’re gonna see real high-end condo development, you’re gonna see retail, you’re gonna see more business office buildings and that type of thing located in the center part right through here and then all the rest of this will be back into gaming. Ten years, all of this will be developed.
There is wide agreement that the way of life is changing in East Biloxi. Lenwood Sawyer expects many homeowners to leave for more affordable areas of the Gulf Coast. His advice for now: Sit tight until a casino or housing developer buys them out.
The Living Cities design group is expected to deliver its plan for East Biloxi in mid-June. Then it’s up to the mayor and city council to decide which holds more sway over Biloxi’s future: the urban planners or the free market.
From American RadioWorks, I’m Stephen Smith for Marketplace.