Mayor undeterred by fire, sees promise of downtown

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway stood alongside two downtown Biloxi businesspeople last night as fire consumed their businesses, and today the mayor said he’s even more determined to see that the Vieux Marche and downtown Biloxi are revitalized.

Three businesses — Adventures Bar & Grill, the Upstairs Downstairs nightclub, and Spanish Trail Books — were destroyed in a late-night blaze that sent smoke and soot throughout the downtown area. Fire inspectors were combing the site today and interviewing witnesses for clues to what started the fire. The blaze was reported at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday and had firefighters from throughout the city on the scene through daybreak.

This afternoon, Public Works crews used heavy equipment to pile bricks near the structure in order to reach and topple the unstable sections of charred brick walls.

The Vieux Marche sections of Howard Avenue and G.E. Ohr Street were expected to be closed until at least noon Thursday.

Holloway, meantime, was steadfast in his plans to approach the Biloxi City Council in several weeks with preliminary engineering plans and cost estimates to re-open the road to two-way traffic.

“It’s something that’s been talked about for years, and I think there’s a way we can do it with federal funds that may be available,” the mayor said. “We had planned to talk about this in a few weeks, but I think people need to know about it now, and I think this fire is not reason to back off the project.”

The Vieux Marche was closed to traffic in the 1970s, when the city used millions in federal funds to create a downtown walking mall, and add sheet metal facades to buildings on Howard Avenue. The plan was to stem the exodus of businesses from downtown to west Biloxi and Edgewater Mall.

That plan failed, and over the years the city has removed the overhangs and sheet metal facades and created a roadbed to re-open the roadway to at least two-way traffic.

“The biggest challenge today is the economic vitality of the Vieux Marche,” Holloway said. “You don’t have residents downtown or even near downtown. You don’t have the 24-hour business environment that you need for food, beverage and entertainment to prosper.”

Nonetheless, the downtown area is seeing its share of success, Holloway said: The Main Street Diner at Main and Howard recently opened, across from the Fillin’ Station bar and grill. A new Half Shell Oyster House restaurant is being constructed in a former bank building on Lameuse Street. The Biloxi Housing Authority is considering buying the former federal building, and the
county has built a new justice court courthouse.

This fall, the Mardi Gras Museum will be opening in a restored Magnolia Hotel, and the city expects to have two tenants in two historic homes that have been re-located to the Rue Magnolia.

“We have elements in place that should also help attract people and investment in downtown,” Holloway said. “The city recently began offering tax incentives. We also have incentives in place for restoring historic properties, and downtown zoning is in place for loft apartments.

“The thing I wanted to see us do next was restore the two-way traffic to the Vieux Marche, and I see no reason to back away from that now. In fact, it’s even MORE important.

“We are committed to downtown. Our Community Development Department will be contacting the property owners of the burned businesses to let them know about the tax incentives and programs we offer.”

More photos

— To see photos from the scene this afternoon, click here.

— To see dozens of photos from the fire, click here.