Vendors vow fight over beach permits

Published 12:49 am Thursday, January 1, 2009

James Foster has operated a beach vending business, Life’s a Beach Rentals, in Harrison County for nearly 30 years. After Hurricane Katrina, his wife wanted to move, but Foster insisted that they stay because of the business.

He said he felt an obligation to residents and tourists.

Foster has never wondered if he would get his permit to operate since those who paid for the permits always had first dibs on them. Now, with state and county officials considering a bid process for the permits, Foster and other vendors aren’t sure if it’s worth the time and effort.

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“I never dreamed this would happen,” Foster said. “That’s too much uncertainty. I don’t want to be in business like that.”

The Harrison County Board of Supervisors is in charge of operating and maintaining the beach. The county years ago passed an ordinance that says whoever owns a permit has the right of first refusal each year for the permit. Permits cost $800 per year.

Recently, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann proposed a memorandum of understanding with the board that would change the way the beach is handled.

Under Hosemann’s proposal, his office would have final authority over all decisions regarding the beach. His proposal also would change the permits to a bid process. Whoever won the bid would have it for four years.

Supervisors are tweaking Hosemann’s proposal and told him recently they don’t want to be an administrative arm for his office. If that’s the case, they said, Hosemann’s office can operate and maintain the beach.

Once the terms of the proposal are worked out, it will have to be approved by U.S. District Court because in a 1970 ruling the court said the supervisors have the right to maintain and replenish the beach, as well as the right to enforce regulations relating to the beach.

Some supervisors are in favor of a bid process so that everyone who wants to sell concessions or rent umbrellas, chairs, Jet Skis and other watercraft have the ability to do so.

“Whenever you have public property, it’s incumbent on us to get fair market value,” Supervisor Marlin Ladner said.

Supervisor Windy Swetman III said he understands why the beach vendors don’t like the idea of bidding on permits, but said Hosemann seems intent on that part of the proposal.

The way the memorandum reads now, vendors could have their permits for the 2009 tourism season. Hosemann said he wants to have the property appraised and make sure $800 is the proper price for the permit. The bid process would take effect in 2010, and those contracts would last for two years, until the end of the current board’s term. After that, the permits would be good for four years.

Vendors said they can’t afford to spend money on equipment and insurance for just four years.

Earlier this year, officials with the Island View Casino proposed building a pavilion on the beach, but the permit for that section of the beach belonged to Angel and Duke Middleton and their business partner, Jeremiah O’Keefe.

The three don’t believe small business owners can compete with casinos and condominium developers if those groups bid on the permits.

“We feel we have a pretty good working relationship with the Harrison County Board of Supervisors,” O’Keefe said. “But if they start talking about a bid process, then we’re going to have a problem with them. We know that we have our life’s work invested in this, and we are willing to see this to the end.”