Politics, Grass lawn and the Gulfport Library

My initial reaction yesterday upon hearing the news that the Gulfport City Council turned down funding to rebuild Grass lawn was anger and disgust. Deb, a member of my small business family and one of the founders of We the People, broke the news to me as she was in attendance at the meeting. The save the Library group lost a 4-3 vote to rescind the demolition order for the library. That vote was a disappointing outcome. The ladies worked very hard for that issue; one which they share a mutual passion.

Today we are greeted with both a news story on the Grasslawn vote and an editorial in the Sun Herald. I am most disturbed by the news story, which indicated the library group was used as pawns by a faction of the City Council opposed to all things Brent Warr to help scuttle rebuilding Grasslawn. Here are some excerpts from the story by Ryan LaFontaine:

A day after they surprisingly said “no thanks” to a $500,000 grant to rebuild a historic icon lost to Katrina, some City Council members were hinting at a do-over.

The Grass Lawn mansion, built in 1836, was so revered that the home had a place on the city’s official seal.

The city already has insurance and FEMA money to help rebuild Grass Lawn and the council only months ago voted unanimously to apply for grant money and to award a design contract to architect Frank Genzer.

But Tuesday the council voted 3-2 to reject a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Archives & History, money the city would not be required to repay.

The story continues:

“My vote shouldn’t have been a surprise,” Carriere said Wednesday. But he said he would have voted differently had he known the plan to rebuild Grass Lawn was going to die.

“If I had known that it wouldn’t have passed, I probably would have asked to delay this so we could talk more about it,” he said. “When we first talked about it, a year or so ago, I was the only one who said anything against Grass Lawn.”

In addition to his Grass Lawn opposition, Carriere was the only vote Tuesday against accepting additional grants to overhaul the façades of City Hall and the Hardy Building.

Sources close to Carriere say he is privately considering a run for mayor next year, but Carriere said his own political aspirations have nothing to do with his opposition to the Warr administration’s proposals.

“I’m a long way from making that decision,” he said of a run in 2009. “But I look at each particular project or issue on its own merit. If it’s something I agree with and that I think is in the best interest of the city, then I support it. If I think it’s frivolous, then I oppose it.”

Council members Neil Resh and Ella Holmes-Hines joined Carriere in opposing the grant. Resh said the city has more pressing needs. Holmes-Hines did not return calls Wednesday.

Ironically, more than two dozen people clamoring to save the historic downtown library from the wrecking ball may have helped kill Grass Lawn. During heated debate at Tuesday’s meeting, some library supporters browbeat Councilwoman Libby Milner Roland into not voting on the Grass Lawn grant, insinuating she had a conflict of interest.

Her grandfather purchased the historic home in 1905, and the Milners sold the property to the city in the 1970s.

After the public accusations, Milner Roland chose not to cast a vote on the Grass Lawn grant.

“I will not recuse myself again,” she told the Sun Herald on Wednesday.

Councilwoman Barbara Nalley left Tuesday’s meeting before the Grass Lawn vote.

When reached by phone Wednesday and asked why she had to leave the meeting and whether she would’ve voted for the grant had she been there, Nalley told the Sun Herald she was traveling and vowed to return the call. She has not.

My first thought upon reading the story is that a community can not be built or rebuilt by in fighting. Scuttling the Grasslawn rebuild will not bring back the library. In fact it will only serve to harden feelings as the difficult and community changing decisions become near impossible to make because of the personal ambitions of a few politicians.

We deserved and did not get proper public discussion of the library issue until after the fact.  However, that discussion did happen and another vote was taken.  Mayor Warr should have been more proactive in meeting with We the People and hearing their concerns but the system did work in the end though the result was not the one desired by the library group .  Now we deserve public discussion of rebuilding Grasslawn and an explanation of why money to rebuild it was turned down.

I don’t think the self inflicted harm to We the People that derives from allowing themselves to being used as political pawns can be overstated. I’m truly sorry ladies but I’m calling this one like I see it. We can never move ahead if we spend all of our time fighting each other.

Here is today’s Sun Herald editorial:

Grass Lawn, the antebellum home on Beach Boulevard that was swept away by Hurricane Katrina, was such a symbol of Gulfport that its image was incorporated into the city’s official logo.

Its loss was so great that federal officials agreed to change the rules that permitted historic structures to be repaired, but not rebuilt from scratch, with disaster relief funds.

The prospect of regaining the beachfront attraction was so universally celebrated that the City Council voted unanimously last year to hire architect Frank Genzer to bring the house back to life.

Just as welcome was the news that the estimated $1 million it would cost to reconstruct Grass Lawn would be covered by a combination of insurance proceeds, federal funding and a $500,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives & History.

Yet on Tuesday, by a vote of 3-2, the Gulfport City Council rejected the idea of even applying for the grant money.

It was one of the most irresponsible actions taken by elected officials in South Mississippi since Katrina.

We cannot begin to explain the reasoning of Council members Brian Carriere, Ella Holmes-Hines and Neil Resh in opposing the grant application. But we urge their constituents to demand these three officials end their opposition and support the reconstruction of Grass Lawn.

We would also encourage the constituents of Barbara Nalley, who left the meeting before the vote was taken Tuesday, to similarly urge her to support the grant application.

As for Libby Milner Roland, who recused herself from the vote because Grass Lawn was donated to the city by the Milner family, she said on Wednesday, “I will not recuse myself again.” If the matter comes before the council again, Roland will be voting to apply for the grant.

And the constituents of Councilmen Gary Hollimon and Jackie Smith, who voted for the grant application, need to thank those two men for their affirmative votes and encourage them to continue to support Grass Lawn.

The importance of retrieving this landmark from the wreckage of Katrina cannot be overstated.

Shortly after that terrible storm, Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, came to South Mississippi to assess the damage for himself. This is what he said:

“We all know Katrina is one of the greatest human tragedies in the nation’s history – but it could also be the greatest cultural catastrophe America has ever experienced. Rebuilding is essential, but it must acknowledge the historic character of one of the nation’s most distinctive regions… . A lot of this can and should be rebuilt. This is your heritage. It’s also important economically for heritage tourism.”

His sentiments were echoed by architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides of Pasadena, Calif., who came to South Mississippi to help design our recovery. “Save every single scrap, even if it’s one column standing” of historic homes, churches and businesses, he advised, and repair, rebuild and reconstruct the heritage they represent.

Gulfport has an opportunity to do just that with Grass Lawn being handed to it, and yet some elected officials are slapping that hand away. That is inexcusable, inexplicable and irresponsible.

As quickly as possible, this matter should be taken back up by the City Council and the grant application should be sent off to Jackson as soon as possible.

If you agree, please contact your representative on the council by phone or e-mail:

Ward 1:Gary Hollimon: 297-9566 or [email protected]

Ward 2:Libby Milner Roland: 209-7796 or [email protected]

Ward 3: Ella Holmes-Hines: 297-0562 or [email protected]

Ward 4: Jackie Smith: 669-6925 or [email protected]

Ward 5: Brian A. Carriere: 806-2184 or [email protected]

Ward 6: Neil Resh: 697-1663 or [email protected]

Ward 7: Barbara Nalley: 861-1294 or [email protected]

The restoration of Grass Lawn is a critical part of our cultural healing process, and we must not squander this opportunity to make it part of the legacy of our Katrina recovery.

4 thoughts on “Politics, Grass lawn and the Gulfport Library”

  1. I think of a very wise saying: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

    Sure, Grass Lawn would cost the city of Gulfport nothing to rebuild, but what of the costs after it is built? Who will pay for the insurance for a million dollar mansion on the beach? What about the costs associated with having Grass Lawn regularly maintained? As a local resident I think there are more pressing issues–like rebuilding the downtown library and furthering our city’s education plans. I find it sad that people have not moved on nearly three years after Katrina hit, and I was in it! Try to place yourself in the councilman’s seat, sometimes you need to make tough decisions to benefit everyone further down the road.

    Since it seems that a small group of people are actually fighting to have this rebuilt right now then why not raise the money yourselves, instead of relying on the taxpayers who may wish to see their hard-earned dollars spent more wisely?

  2. Lunch may not be free – but Grass Lawn was priceless.

    I’m sure the thought of rebuilding the City is overwhelming but why even bother if it’s going to have none of the character it had before.

    I apologize if that seems overly harsh but local residents are not the only ones with hard-earned tax dollars invested in rebuilding the Coast.

    I’d rather see mine go to Ocean Springs or down to the Bay or the Pass than to a pinch-penny version of the Gulfport we had before.

    The “tough decisions to benefit everyone further down the road” should be vision driven – so far it’s hard to see anything but a nightmare.

    I’d welcome any information you have to offer that might prove me wrong – and I welcome you to slabbed, although I don’t agree on Grass Lawn.

  3. Welcome to slabbed Pomote. There may not be such a thing as a free lunch but Grass Lawn also took in money pre Katrina when it was rented out for Wedding Receptions and the like. To act as though it is a big time drain on the City budget misstates this issue and does not do it justice.

    The library and Grass lawn are separate issues. Though not mutually exclusive in that they both involve pieces of our history and culture you hit on the dynamic that made the save the library group political pawns to their detriment. You see there is already a plan to construct a new library in downtown Gulfport plus a new main branch in Orange Grove. The location of the downtown branch is the issue with We the People. But it is intellectually dishonest to make a linkage between the library and Grass Lawn in the context you implied just as it is dishonest to pretend there is not already a plan to rebuild a downtown library.

    You mentioned putting ourselves into the minds of the minority of the City Council, one that relied on the anger of the library group; an opportunistic faction that waited until another council person had left the meeting to take up this issue.

    “My vote shouldn

  4. The group trying to save the library went to the city because the county sent them there. The city passed the resolution that instructed the county to demolish the library. The attack on a group that only wants to save a library on a valuable piece of public property is unfair and unwarranted. Since when are citizens attempting to save a 43 year old building the enemy. Look around at the small number of landmarks left on the coast and tell me that this is political. Grasslawn is an issue on its own and the only comparison is expense and insurance. There is plenty of blame to go around but blaming those that work hard to find answers that public officials won’t give to issues isn’t the answer.

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