Coast Lines - April 2021
- by Ellis Anderson
Bay St. Louis has been featured three separate times in Southern Living Magazine this year - and for good reason. We have tons of charm and lots of character, lovely scenery, and a lovely historic district.
But the most recent article, published in May 2021, has a lead-in that probably surprised most locals:
"Once you hit the waterfront in Old Town Bay St. Louis, you might as well be in the French Quarter."
Which leads us to ask the question, "Which part of the French Quarter? Royal Street or Bourbon?"
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Royal Street has a worldwide reputation for fine dining, art, shopping and homes. It's a place you want to spend the day with your children and elderly grandma. Bourbon Street also has a worldwide reputation, one for nightlife and partying. It's an adult destination.
So which direction for our Bay? And how do we choose?
Of course historically, our town has always offered a celebratory component. Family events like Crab Fest are woven into our heritage. The legendary Dock of the Bay restaurant and music club was both beloved by all, as were several other pre-Katrina beachfront establishments that mostly catered to locals.
Yet, the community also drew some serious lines.
A little recent history
The town reached another crossroads soon after Hurricane Katrina. Developers proposed an enormous casino at Beach and Main. In order to meet the 25-acre requirement, many surviving buildings – including some historic ones – would have to be demolished. A Disney-like reproduction of Old Town would be built to house the casino (sounds unbelievable now, doesn't it?).
When the proposal came before the city council, citizens packed the large meeting room, almost all of them protesting. Later, the Sea Coast Echo ran two consecutive full-page ads against the proposal, stating “a casino in Old Town … would be a case of inappropriate placement.” The ad was paid for and signed by 82 residents and business owners. The proposal melted away.
A new crossroads
What’s also changing are the reasons all these people are attracted to the Bay. Traditionally, the Bay’s always been a rest and relaxation spot for families, especially from the New Orleans area, who came to dine, shop and hang out on the beach. Now there seem to be more folks looking for an energetic nightlife.
Because of these shifting dynamics, you’ve probably heard many generational locals say they avoid downtown altogether now. They mention things like overcrowding, rowdy behavior, parking, traffic and noise.
Here’s one small example: I lived in the 100 block of Main Street for many years pre-Katrina and never heard amplified music from The Good Life or Dan B’s or the Fire Dog or the Dock. Now, I live a mile and a half from the beachfront and can sometimes make out the lyrics to the songs being performed on weekend nights.
Is that a problem? To some, no. It’s the sound of people having fun and money being made! To others, yes, it’s a definite problem. We want to enjoy our homes with the music of our choice, or none at all.
That fact hit home for me a few months ago, the first time I heard someone in a neighboring town joke that Bay St. Louis was now Bar St. Louis. While the city is being lauded nationally for our art scene and historic district, we’ve also gained a more regional reputation as Party Central.
So which image do we want to prevail? Where do we want to live? Do we want to be more like Royal Street or Bourbon Street? Or somewhere in between?
Obviously, the people of Bay St. Louis need to arrive at a consensus as we go forward. Once we set our collective goals, we can start addressing the issues attached to all three of those choices.
A new Comprehensive Plan
Here’s how it works: Professional urban planners gather input from the public to create a 25-year vision. Together, residents consider all major aspects of community life: roads, parks, education, economics and town character (to name a few). Everyone has an opportunity for their voice to be heard.
Eventually, this community consensus is distilled into a long document. The final document has more chances for community input. Then it’s adopted by the city council. Afterward, the Zoning Ordinance and maps are updated to reflect the new vision in the Comprehensive Plan.
The plans are supposed to be reviewed and updated every five years or so, allowing city governments to make course corrections along the way - with citizen input.
The current Bay St. Louis comprehensive plan was passed in 2008. To my knowledge, there has been no updating process. In the 2008 plan, one of the most repeated comments? “We want to keep our town character.”
But what exactly is that now?
So while our city council will be facing the usual issues of budgets and economic development and water quality and of course, the perennial bee in our town bonnet, drainage, this year, they also need to asking themselves and their constituents the two most important questions of all:
- What’s your vision for the future of Bay St. Louis?
- When will the city begin its new comprehensive plan that will give us consensus on a common vision?