Visions. U.S. 90 (top) could be made a scenic highway and CSX railroad shifted north of coast. (Photo top courtesy of FEMA/Mark Wolfe; bottom by E. Michael Powers for ENR)

The Mississippi Renewal Forum held Oct. 11-17 in Biloxi "matched local architects, engineers, and planners with worldwide experts," says Will Longwitz, spokesman for the rebuilding commission created Sept. 12 by Gov. Haley Barbour (R). "Local leaders were suspicious of the process at first, but after the first couple of days, they began to realize that they would never have resources and attention like this again."

Forum participants will now take the ideas to town meetings among the 11 Gulf Coast cities and towns to see which ones they like. The final commission report is due on Dec. 31. A special session of the state legislature will be held Jan. 3 to discuss funding the plan. "The governor and congressional delegation currently are working on a federal recovery package," adds Longwitz.

New transportation projects are key to the rebuilding plan. Ensuring pedestrian-friendly development will increase appeal for developers and future residents and tourists, officials say. "The long-term recovery will require private investors, so we are trying to make the area as attractive as we can," says Longwitz. The addition of a trolley system adjacent to U.S. 90 and a new east-west commuter road are the most popular ideas. Forum participants want to return U.S. 90 to its status as a scenic, oceanfront road by building a new road over the current CSX Corp. rail right-of-way. CSX traffic would be shifted north of Gulfport and Biloxi.

"It’s a real danger to have freight service running through the city," says Jeff Talyor, deputy director of Southern Mississippi Planning and Development. But relocating the rail route will be expensive and difficult. "Without financial incentives, the state will not be able to muster will to move the line," he says. CSX has already gone forward with repairing the line but is open to discussing a move, says a company spokeswoman.

Other ideas include realigning Highway 90 to create an eight-acre park in Pascagoula, building mixed-use units in Biloxi and building a "French Quarter" waterfront hub in D’Iberville.

"These plans are only ideas for local officials and citizens to consider," says Jim Barksdale, director of the governor’s commission. "The people of the coast will make the decisions on how to rebuild, not the governor’s commission." Building affordable and safe housing for the poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods, preserving the character of the Gulf Coast and adding new infrastructure that is better prepared for the next storm should be the top priorities, he says.

"In 30 years...people will look at what the Coast and South Mississippi have become," Barbour said in a forum speech. "If it is simply a newer version of today, we will have failed."

he state of Mississippi hopes to transform the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina into an opportunity to improve the Gulf Coast area. After a state-commissioned forum last month with planning experts, local leaders unveiled various design concepts–including rezoning hard-hit areas to encourage pedestrian-friendly communities, building a trolley system between Biloxi and Gulfport and relocating a freight railroad to make room for a new east-west road.