Old Town beach front declared ‘slum area’

It might surprise some Bay St. Louis residents to learn that the Old Town beach front, where millions of dollars have been spent since Hurricane Katrina for buildings, infrastructure and a brand-new Beach Boulevard, is a blighted slum.

But that’s the official word from the City Council, which learned this week that the pretend designation is necessary before $15.6 million can be spent to build a 162-slip luxury marina at taxpayer expense.

“It’s part of the process,” said consultant Olie Elfer, whose job is to help the city wrangle millions in Community Development Block Grant Funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Elfer told council members Monday that the Mississippi Development Authority, HUD’s alter-ego on the state level, has already given a green light to the project. But first, a tiny piece of business remained: Issuing a blighted slum designation.

Conditions for receiving CDBG grants are three-fold, Elfer said: There must be an urgent need for the project. It must benefit low and moderate income people, and it must eliminate slum and blight conditions.

For slum and blight to be eliminated, however, they must first exist. And if they don’t exist in actuality, they can apparently at least exist in theory. All it takes is a declaration from the city.

Granted, business has been slow for Old Town merchants for months, held back at first by laborious hurricane reconstruction and then by recession. But while there may indeed be blighted areas of Bay St. Louis, the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Main Street, where the marina and a new pier are planned, probably is not one of them.

The brand-new Beach Boulevard road and adjoining infrastructure projects cost about $6 million. And the adjacent downtown streetscape cost more than another $2 million.

Add to that pending construction of a new seawall, pegged to cost $33 million, and millions more spent by property owners and insurance companies following the storm.

But, said Elfer, the new marina “will play a significant role in stopping economic decline” brought about by Hurricane Katrina. “The actual slum and blight designation has been approved by MDA,” she added.

Not all in the council audience agreed. “That’s a boondoggle,” Amby Daigre, a city Planning and Zoning commissioner, said of the marina during the same meeting.

Councilman Bill Taylor was also skeptical. He said he feared that “some other authority, who we are forever obligated to, will perceive that we have already approved a municipal harbor, and we haven’t done that.”

At any rate, Elfer indicated, the argument is now hypothetical.

“It’s already been funded by MDA,” she told the council.

BY: J.R. Welsh

The Sea Coast Echo

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