THE TRANSFORMATION OF JONES PARK, GULFPORT, MS

I imagine the co-founder of the city of Gulfport, Capt. Joseph T. Jones, would be delighted with the remodel and beautification of his beloved coastal property. It is important to know the history of this remarkable man in order to fully appreciate his contribution to this area. We owe him a debt of gratitude. He was born in 1842, and hailed from Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, he sustained serious injuries to both feet and was discharged from the Service in 1864. Jones returned to his home in Philadelphia to recover. He used his war time savings as well as bank loans to began drilling for oil the following year. After twelve dry holes, he finally hit oil on the thirteenth attempt, it was now 1867. Joseph T. Jones became the largest crude oil producer in the United States.
He and his fellow investors bought out a bankrupt and unfinished Gulf and Ship Island Railroad in South Mississippi which included 63,000 acres of southern yellow pine that were ready to be harvested. Using his fortune from oil production, Jones finished construction of the railroad and through a merger it became the Gulf and Ship Island Company. William H. Hardy and Joseph T. Jones founded the city of Gulfport together, and it was deemed the railroad’s southern most terminal. A deep water channel was dredged in the Gulf of Mexico that created a harbor and the port of Gulfport.
Athough the Jones family resided in New York, Joseph spent a great deal of time on the Coast to keep a watchful eye on his railroad, timber and shipping investments. He built the Great Southern Hotel in Gulfport which served as his residence when he was in town. At the time of his passing, the Jones estate was valued at an astonishing fifteen million dollars. In 1935, the city of Gulfport was bequeathed a tract of land along the coastline by his heir, Grace Jones Stewart with the understanding that the property would be used solely for recreational purposes. Jones Park has been a treasured feature of the Gulfport landscape for generations because of this generous gift. It is the largest public park on the Gulf Coast.
Ryan LaFontaine, Public Information Officer for the City of Gulfport, was kind enough to give GTP the most current information on the progress of the Jones Park project. Construction on a site of this magnitude (26 acres) is a slow and arduous process but the crossroads of Hwy 49 and 90 will be a veritable showplace for outdoor fun and family gatherings. The site has been the location of choice for many different events over the years, including the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and Cruisin the Coast because of the extensive space. The property was always well used but in need of major improvements. The architects of Eley, Guild, Hardy designed a three-phase restoration project that is totally transforming Jones Park into something extra special. A place where people will congregate and enjoy for many more generations. Mayor George Schloegel has made the restoration of Jones Park a top priority. The price tag for this undertaking is nearly $35 million. It is expected that nearly all of the improvements to the park will be finished next year. “This has been a very complex project and we have had many challenges however, overall everything has gone according to schedule,” LaFontaine said.
Phase I includes the construction of a Splash Pad, sidewalks, lighting pavilion, playgrounds, and a greenspace in the northeastern corner of the park. The Splash Pad will be a wonderful place to cool off in the heat of the summer and fun for kids of all ages. In keeping with the harbor theme, the playground equipment is quite unusual, as it looks like a very large boat! Children will have a ball using their imaginations to take them up and down the coastline in this beautiful blue and white vessel. The Phase 1 work was done simultaneously as the Coast Transit Authority built a new bus terminal and comfort station in the park. Roy Anderson Corp was the contractor on both projects.
Phase II encompasses Jones Park Drive and 20th Avenue, north of the roundabout. This part of the project realigned and widened 20th Avenue leading into the park. Additional parking was also created along the eastern edge of the harbor. Phase III will focus on parking and access to the new yacht basin. An additional greeenspace will be established adjacent to the south beach location that lies between Urie and Moses piers.
A beautiful replica of the old Ship Island Lighthouse is now visible near the boat launches. Work is nearly completed on a new 23,000 square foot pavilion at the southeastern corner of the property. The pavilion will be the location for concerts, sporting events, and corporate and family gatherings throughout the year. The amphitheater will provide a staging area as well for outdoor concerts. It will be a tensile structure that will cover the stage area, flanked by two small pavilions on either side. The ground has a slight slope which provides a favorable viewing area from anywhere in the park.
The new Jones Park will be the setting for the Gulfport Music Festival on May 18, 19 and 20. Although not the official grand opening of the park, this will be the first ever event on the property, and it will be extraordinary. There will be over fifty bands for three days, with headliners Nelly and Maroon 5. The Annual Sounds by the Sea concert is scheduled in the Spring as well. “Currently, several other concert promoters are working with the city of Gulfport for future shows later this year in the park. The city also plans to relocate its Gulfport City Stage Concert Series from downtown to the new pavilion after the music festival. Atlas Fights is planning a large MMA event at the pavilion on October 20, and we are working with owner, Glenn Mattina, on future dates,” LaFontaine said. The city of Gulfport expects to meet with several other boxing promoters to set up additional events throughout the year. Jones Park will offer all sorts of wonderful entertainment for all ages. Cruisin the Coast will undoubtedly return, and there is talk about several large fishing tournaments.
After Katrina, all of the old wooden piers and pillings in the harbor were removed and replaced with giant concrete plies and supports. All of the utilities and critical infrastructure that supply power to the new harbor and park have been elevated. The decorative looking towers seen throughout the harbor are actually facades covering up all the harbor’s utilities. Every effort is being made to protect the new park from serious damage from hurricanes that may affect the Coast in the future. “The new harbor is much higher above sea level. I can’t say it is hurricane proof, but we hope that it will be more sturdy. Much of the new services are being built to hopefully withstand average storms,” Mayor Schloegel said.
Mayor Schloegel developed the Memorial Tree Program as a way to supply new trees in the city through community involvement. It is a wonderful way to help replant the city’s natural canopy, as well as honor special people and loved ones. The program is already a success as people are purchasing trees throughout Gulfport. The sidewalks of Jones Park will be well shaded and provide a lovely area for a stroll or a bike ride. A stop at the fisherman’s village will be great fun! The fisherman’s village will be reminiscent of an old fashioned wharf. It will provide a special venue for local commercial fishermen and area farmers to sell their fresh catches and locally grown produce.
The construction crews are hard at work to get everything ready before the Gulfport Music Fest in May. The feedback from Coast residents is quite favorable and has been exciting. Those who remember what the area looked like before Katrina are absolutely amazed. “Wait till they see the completion. The people of Gulfport won’t believe it,” LaFontaine said.

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