Black MS Coast community struggles with business, development

Much of Ward 3 has experienced one of the biggest transformations in trendy Bay St. Louis over the last 60 years.

Home of the Depot District that has new restaurants, shops, apartments and Airbnb rentals, the area is ready for the return of Amtrak passenger trains as business spreads from packed Old Town.

“Ward 3 is the place to be right now,” says Jeremy Burke, zoning administrator and community affairs representative for Bay St. Louis.

More than $1 million in improvements are being made to the depot and grounds in preparation for the day when Amtrak service is restored, allowing passengers to hop between New Orleans and the Bay.

Things are thriving in the Depot to the south and on U.S. 90 to the north, where national chain businesses mix with locally-owned shops.

But the historic Black neighborhood in the heart of the ward — and blocks away from the bustling downtown that resembles a smaller Destin, Florida — has been largely left behind in the growth.

And as it stands now, there’s little opportunity for business to return.

Black businesses close for good over decades

The area is called Backatown by some who live there, although it’s a name that others find derogatory. The term is borrowed, perhaps, from Backatown in New Orleans, a section of the city behind the French Quarter, where musician Trombone Shorty grew up and inspired him to write a song about “Backatown.”

In this neighborhood of Bay St. Louis, along Washington and Sycamore streets and Old Spanish Trail, many Black-owned and ethnic mom and pop business operated in the mid-1900s, before the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation.

The majority minority ward basically was self-sufficient, said Ward 3 Councilman Jeffrey Reed. Close to 30 businesses operated on Washington and Sycamore streets, he said, as he recalls a dry cleaner, clothing store, mom and pop grocery stores, a pharmacy, bakery, game room, midwife, barber and dentist.

These businesses catered to African American residents who weren’t welcome to shop or dine in many of the white-owned businesses downtown until the late 1960s.

Businesses in Ward 3 began closing as the owners aged, Reed said, and as young people left for college and opportunities outside Mississippi and as residents had the choice to shop elsewhere.

The remaining businesses in the ward faded out in the 1990s and 2000s, he said, after zoning laws removed most of the commercial land in Ward 3. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 wiped out any businesses still left.

Now only one small convenience store, Lucky’s Food Mart, remains.

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The zoning map for Ward 3 in Bay St. Louis shows commercial areas (in pink) near the train depot and in limited areas near Sycamore Street. City of Bay St. Louis map

The debate: commercial or residential zoning?

Reed, who was born and raised in the ward, said some residents want to see the opportunity for small businesses to return to the corners along Washington and Sycamore streets.

After Katrina, when the city established new zoning districts throughout Bay St. Louis, a group from Ward 3 tried to rezone every major corner to commercial to make it more business friendly, he said.

“Some of the council and some in the city were opposed to it,” he said. Under the new zoning ordinance, few lots are commercial and of those, one has a church and another a house on the land.

Reed said Bill Williams had operated a small barbecue restaurant on Old Spanish Trail for 20 years. His business was between two commercial properties, Reed said, but after the new zoning laws were enacted, customers were no longer allowed sit and eat their barbecue.

“You had to get it to go,” Reed said.

Other residents of Ward 3, like Paula Fairconnetue, who worked for the city for 25 years, want the Third Ward to remain the mostly residential neighborhood it’s been since Hurricane Katrina.

People are buying property in the Third Ward and building nice homes, she said, and that’s what residents want.

“What we don’t want is overcrowding,” she said.

“There is neighborhood commercial property available in Ward 3 if anyone wanted to start a business,” she said.

But she said business owners want to be downtown, near the depot or out on U.S. 90 — where their customers are.

“We have some Black business in Bay St. Louis and they’re surviving and doing fine,” she said.

Grants for minority owned business in Hancock County

In April, Hancock Community Development Foundation, in partnership with Mississippi Power and the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, offered small business grants to encourage minority and women-owned businesses in the community.

Fifteen grants for $2,000 each to chamber members were provided through a donation from Mississippi Power. Winners will be announced at the May 11 chamber meeting at Hollywood Casino Gulf Coast.

“Our motto is ‘All are welcome here,’” said Tish Williams, chamber executive director.

“Some of these investors coming in are going to be creating more retail opportunities than we’ve ever had before,” she said.

Gail Baptiste said she loves the location of her business, Tony Arom Salon & Spa, in a remodeled home at 548 Main Street and east of the Third Ward. It’s near U.S. 90 in Bay St. Louis rather than downtown near the water.

“It’s not ‘that end’ of Main but it’s Main,” she said.

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Gail Baptiste, who owns Tony Arom Salon & Spa in Bay St. Louis, poses for a portrait in the salon on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

She’s been in business there for nearly five years. While she has stylists, a massage therapist and staff for facials and braiding, “It’s so much more than hair and massage,” she said.

“I wanted to make it personal, comfortable, relaxing,” she said. It’s her dream to serve people, she said, and many of her customers who get a massage do so because they are in pain, she said. She started making wigs for a friend who has cancer.

She’s one of the few black owned businesses in the city. “I’m really proud of that,” she said, but said she would like to see more support from the Black community.

Supply-demand struggles, flood insurance in Bay St. Louis

Ernest Taylor handcrafts intricate cutting boards, treasure boxes, charcuterie boards and cheese boards out of fine woods under his trade name Taylor Made Creation.

They are sold at Midtown Pharmacy in Bay St. Louis, along with Robin’s Nest in Pass Christian and Hillyer House in Ocean Springs.

Taylor started his business during the coronavirus pandemic and now faces the challenges of material costs and supply shortages.

“It’s been really difficult to keep up because of the resources,” he said. The cost of the walnut he uses in his boards has doubled from $8 to $16, he said. His competition sells cheaper, mass produced products.

“It’s not a Walmart cutting board,” he said. “It’s not made in China.”

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Ernest Taylor, a Bay St Louis resident who owns Taylor Made Creation woodworking business, sells his wares at Midtown Pharmacy and Gifts on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

Taylor, who lived in Houston growing up and spent every summer in Ward 3 with his grandparents, said he would open a business in the Third Ward if he had an opportunity.

“Ward 3 is going to die if it doesn’t have business,” he said.

Rachel Dangermond is the director of 100 Men Hall, the historic culture and entertainment venue at the edge of what is considered Backatown.

She’s seen the character of the neighborhoods change as more vacation homes are built near the water, she said, and she’s experienced the challenges of doing business in South Mississippi.

Hurricane Zeta blew the roof off of the hall, she said.

“Our property taxes doubled this year,” she said. “Everyone was speechless.”

Flood and wind insurance rates are rising, too, she said, but she’s still optimistic for the city and Third Ward as she plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of 100 Men Hall this summer.

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The 100 Men Hall D.B.A. in Bay St. Louis is hosting LGBTQ events, including monthly drag brunches.

Now’s the time: Redistricting and rezoning

Bay St. Louis, like cities and counties across Mississippi and the country, are required to redistrict this year. The ward lines are redrawn every decade after the U.S. Census, so roughly the same number of residents are in each ward for equal representation.

The city also is in the early stages of reviewing its comprehensive plan as its population and businesses rapidly expand.

“I am very encouraged about the future of Bay St Louis because we are growing so fast,” Fairconnetue said. It’s time to review and update the plan, she said, “to look and see what direction we’re going in.”

Reed said it’s possible Ward 3 will no longer be a minority ward when redistricting is done, and he hopes to get the ward rezoned before the next election.

If a majority of the residents want to see businesses return to Washington and Sycamore streets, this could be the opportunity for change.

Reed and his wife, Tina, had an education plan for their four daughters, “grown and gone.” When they graduated from college, each were given a plot of land in Bay St. Louis. When they get their doctorate, their parents build a house for them on that lot.

Reed said they hope this will keep them connected to Ward 3 and encourage their daughters to one day return to the Bay.

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Third ward councilman Jeffrey Reed poses for a portrait in front of new construction on a wall at MLK Park in Bay St. Louis on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Reed has been working to renovate the park in hopes that it will become more of a gathering place for the community. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

It starts with a Coast park and school

Ward 3 residents have proven they are united behind two projects — the restoration of MLK Park and getting the Valena C. Jones school accepted to the National Register of Historic Place to preserve the Black history of that area.

Work began in 2018 to take back the park after a string of crime events occurring there and make it a place for families again, Reed said.

“Most of this has been done by private donations,” he said as crews were resurfacing basketball courts, updating the playground equipment and installing brick and wrought iron fence all around the park.

“This splash pad will play 100 kids safely,” he said.

Mississippi Power, the Seal Foundation and Lowe’s invested in the community and the renovations being done by the Friends of MLK Park, who Reed said also plan to build a pavilion and barbecue pits and install security cameras to keep it safe.

“We’re building it,” he said of the park renovations, “and we’re delivering it back to the city.”

Art Clementin has spearheaded the drive to get the school on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s been a community hub for a long time,” he said of the building on Old Spanish Trail where he graduated in 1965 and that now houses the Boys and Girls Club.

The school is named for a native of the city who was the principal of the Bay St. Louis Negro School from 1892 to 1897.

Jones made it possible for African American students to get a good education, he said. The school operated for 80 years, from 1892 to 1997, and was the hub of education, social life, politics and religion for minority residents of the city and surrounding areas of the county, he said.

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Workers hired by Jeffrey Reed’s construction company work on building a brick wall around MLK Park as a part of renovation efforts in the Third Ward in Bay St. Louis on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Hannah Ruhoff [email protected]

Students and others in the community were taught to register and vote, to read and recite the preamble to the Constitution and to participate in choir, band and athletes.

“That building was everything to everybody in Hancock County,” he said.

It changed lives, he said. After graduation, Clementin went on to Jackson State and then spent 33 years as an industrial arts teacher and principal of a vo-tech school in Michigan. He was the high school coach for Tony Dungy, the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl, coaching Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to the championship.

Clementin and a committee held a petition drive, collected hundreds of signatures and recently completed the application to get the school on the National Register.

“The struggle that my parents and myself went through so that we could have equal opportunity for educational experiences is a passion of mine,” he said. Education is the key, he said, and “It wasn’t so easy to acquire.”

Now it will be up to the residents and leadership to determine what is the next chapter for Ward 3.

This story was originally published May 18, 2022 9:00 AM.

Mary Perez has won awards for her business and casino articles for the Sun Herald. She also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.