By Warren Kulo -

OCEAN SPRINGS, Mississippi -- If you build it, they will come.

While that's a shameless steal from the movie "Field Of Dreams," it also accurately represents what seems to be the current prevailing sentiment in the Ocean Springs business community.

Since Jan. 1, the city clerk's office has issued 55 new privilege (business) licenses. That's a pace of 2.75 per week and an increase of 37.5 percent over the same period a year ago -- and it shows no signs of slowing, with a number of new commercial entities either planned or under construction.

"Before the storm (Hurricane Katrina) we had some growth, but it was really just at an average pace," recalled John Gill, now in his 37th year as an Ocean Springs alderman. "Then we had some growth with the arrival of the casinos and, of course, we had a lot of growth after the storm.

"But I can't remember the business community ever growing this fast. It's really taken off and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight."

Unsurprisingly, a number of the new businesses are in the food & beverage industry -- a staple of Ocean Springs since Katrina. This year alone, at least nine new F&B establishments have opened in the city:

The Love Shack on Government Street
Italian Garden on Government Street
Gulf Coast Grill on U.S. 90 in eastern Ocean Springs
Knuckleheads at the intersection of Washington and Porter Avenues
Glory Bound Gyro Co. on Government Street
Crooked Letter Brewing Co. on Porter Avenue
Kenny Ward's Steakhouse on U.S. 90
Hops & Growlers at the intersection of Government and Bechtel Blvd.
The Hideaway on Government Street
But the breakneck pace of business growth isn't limited to food and beverage, or to the downtown area.

The Inlet -- a $10 million residential/commercial development -- is well underway on U.S. 90 west. Already open is the $1.6 million Tractor Supply Co. on the highway near the Trentwood subdivision.

Across from Wal-Mart, infrastructure work is ongoing on a large piece of property along the highway where a retail development will be erected, with national retailers already committed to locating there.

"There's definitely a lot of growth towards the east end of Ocean Springs -- both in the city and in the unincorporated areas," said Jackson County supervisor Randy Bosarge. "West of Highway 57 into Ocean Springs is definitely growing, for sure.

"We're not the quiet little town we used to be, but it's a good thing, because it's all good development."

Other businesses which have either opened or are under construction include, but are certainly not limited to:

Sugar Delights gift shop
An as-yet unnamed retail/residential development at the former Manhattan Grill site
Marina Cottage Soap Co.
Buff City Soap
Ocean Springs Mercantile
David "Lawdog" Krause is constructing a new building next to Murky Waters BBQ
The Sands -- a new residential development on Front Beach
Sport Shack -- relocated to Ocean Springs from D'Iberville
But there's more.

Earlier this week, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors accepted a $1.1 million bid from a Connecticut-based developer to purchase the former Swingster property on Government Street.

Bosarge said the developer did not provide details on what's planned for the site, other than to say it would be a mixed-use, commercial/residential development.

"Let's put it this way -- I don't think they'd spend $1.1 million to put up a Dollar General," Bosarge joked.

In addition, The Roost boutique hotel on Porter Avenue is adding five rooms and a bar. Meanwhile, Woody's Roadside Grill on U.S. 90 is planning to construct an entirely new facility behind it's current location. Once the new building is complete, the existing facility will be demolished to make room for additional parking, according to those familiar with the project.

Local developer Jimmy Lane also recently announced his $2.8 million investment to purchase the entire Bills Avenue neighborhood of rental homes, demolish them, and replace them with upscale homes for purchase.

Clark Levi has been a business owner in Ocean Springs for years. He owns or co-owns The Field sports bar, Gardens Pharmacy, and the iconic Lovelace Drugs building, which is set to reopen sometime this summer.

"The growth can't be anything but good," Levi said. "I know there's a tremendous amount of growth here and there's still a lot to come. I'm still kind of young, but I can't recollect a time when we've had such an influx into the business community and the coast area in general."

And, with all the new businesses, customers are coming.

Revenues from both sales and the city's 2 percent food & beverage tax are on the rise, with March sales tax revenues the highest in city history for that month and the third highest for any month ever. F&B tax revenues in March were the highest since the tax was instituted in 2008.

With the commercial growth in Ocean Springs continuing, others are taking notice.

"We have growth in Gulfport. We have growth in Biloxi and you can see it happening along the coast. But in Ocean Springs it's something which we need to pay more attention to," said Milton Segarra, CEO of Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Let me explain why," Segarra continued. "We have certain specific points along the coast which are very important to the overall experience on the coast. Ocean Springs is one of those points. Ocean Springs brings a very distinctive flair to the experience. The culture, the arts, the sense of community, the beachfront, downtown shops, food and entertainment opportunities -- all make Ocean Springs a very serious destination for visitors."

Segarra also said the growth within the Ocean Springs business community has an impact on the coast as a whole.

"It has a tremendous impact on how we diversify the impact of the experience visitors have when they come to the Mississippi coast," he said. "That's the strategic value of that community. It brings a different perspective to the overall experience when visitors come to the coast."

City officials are clearly not standing pat when it comes to recruiting additional business, either. Recently, the board of aldermen hired a "retail coach" who will identify businesses needed in the city.

"They've identified about 80,000 people who are considered to be within our shopping 'footprint,'" Gill said. "The retail coach researches what products people are leaving the area to find and that will help us determine what businesses to target and try to bring to Ocean Springs."

Perhaps no one in Ocean Springs is more pleased with the rapid pace of business growth than Cynthia Sutton, who has been with the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce for more than 12 years, the past three as executive director.

"We did have a spurt in 2012 when we had almost a dozen businesses try to open the week of Peter Anderson (Festival), but to have 55 businesses open since January, we haven't seen that kind of growth, that fast, in a long time," Sutton said. "We have seen some steady growth the last few years, but to have a concentration like that is new and it's exciting."

Sutton said both the chamber and the City have been for many years putting greater emphasis on economic development and are now seeing the fruits of those efforts.

"Economic development has been one of our goals for many years," she said. "To keep the character of Ocean Springs, but to grow it at the same time. We're finally seeing everything aligned where economic development is beginning to flourish in Ocean Springs, from small business to big business.

"This is what we do in Ocean Springs," Sutton added. "Having the additional business growth makes our job more fun. Having that additional business really lets you see the benefits of what the town has been doing for so many years. It doesn't make things more challenging for us, it creates more opportunities."

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