'You rebuild your lives'

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BILOXI, Miss. The fish are back. So are the casinos, with more coming. Now what about the people?

Hurricane Katrina's foot storm surge devastated the Gulf Coast town, sweeping away casinos, hotels and entire stretches of beachfront Antebellum homes. Gone as well are neighborhoods where the town's workforce lived.

"When the waves came in, it destroyed all the affordable housing. We lost thousands of homes," resident Bo Ethridge says. "We look at it from the standpoint that we were born and raised here, the only way for it to come back is to build it."

Ethridge is doing his part. The former healthcare executive partnered five years ago with Tim Menius, who left a CPA firm, to start Shoreline Development. They are focusing on meeting the need for affordable housing, the $150,000 to $200,000 home.

"A big question was, would the people rebuild on the coast?" Ethridge says before answering himself. "Yes, they would. There's two issues, the time it is taking and the second thing is the insurance, which is driving the cost up."

Ethridge says insurance rates have jumped up to 500 percent in extreme cases and is pricing many out of beachfront property. Much of that prime real estate is being bought by big investors, leaving out the little guy.

"What the Gulf Coast needs is a concerted effort to bring our people home so they can help work in our industries here," Ethridge says. "Gov. Haley Barbour has been tremendously successful in his approach to get Washington to help our state."

Developments and investors enjoy a Go-Zone tax benefit, where investors can deduct half of their real estate cost in the first year. The hope is to attract much-needed investor capital to the Go-Zone area from other parts of the nations.

Ethridge says there's also a small rental assistance program (SRAP), basically a forgivable loan to build new rental properties. Under it, $75,000 of a $250,000 loan to build a duplex would be picked up by the state.

"That ties in to how our government is getting involved to try to help out," says Ethridge, who is taking a financial hit on a development in nearby Gulfport, all in the name of getting people back home.

The Meadows, a 235-unit, $26 million venture, is one of the larger single mixed used developments along the Gulf Coast. The modular homes are built elsewhere and trucked down to the coast ready to assemble.

"The sheetrock's in, carpet's in, lightbulbs are in it. Once it goes down the highway, it's almost good to go," says Ethridge, who adds building time is cut from 6 to 9 months to 4 to 6 weeks.

Shoreline is selling these homes at 20 percent off the appraised price, which is among the incentives.

"One hundred houses times $30,000, that's $3 million," Ethridge says. "Over the long run, it's going to be worth it. We have to get our labor back, our skilled workers."

That includes the charter fishing boats. With a lack of clientele, many of the charter workers have supplemented their income with construction work of some kind. The casinos rebuilt first, and the housing industry is now starting to make a serious push.

Ethridge says he believes fishing charters will come back to pre-Katrina days, when a captain could make a decent living.

"The things that bring people here other than the casinos; we have a wonderful tourism that is working with the charter fishing," he says, adding outstanding golf courses and dining opportunities. "Just last week, we had Cruising the Coast; 4,000 antique cars driving all around."

The Gulf Coast also has beaches, powerboat races, shrimp festivals and a plethora of fishing tournaments. Ethridge says there's fishing for all types, from deep-sea for tuna and wahoo to inshore for redfish and trout.

"The fishing has actually been pretty good," he says. "The pressure is off them."

The largest event in the U.S., the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, is held annually on the Gulf Coast. It's the only fishing tournament every to make the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"It's really a diverse area," Ethridge says. "It's the sport fishing, the gaming and the golf. It's a destination."

A destination after devastation. It's hard to go back to where your life was shattered, but Ethridge says people are doing it.

"Mississippi is coming back. The people who had moved away are starting to come back," he said. "This is a small town. You're going to get through it, rebuild your homes and help your neighbor rebuild.

"You rebuild your lives."