Hattiesburg Convention Commission takes measures to continue revenue, help area restaurants in face of virus

By HASKEL BURNS,

The current coronavirus pandemic may have put a financial strain on the Hattiesburg Convention Commission – which benefits from the 2 percent sales tax collected from the also financially-burdened restaurants in the city – but the organization is remaining steadfast to keep revenue flowing and help restaurants ease the strain of restrictions and closures caused by the virus.

Because all of the commission’s facilities – including the Hattiesburg Zoo, African American Military History Museum and the Saenger Theater – have temporarily closed down, the commission is facing an earned income loss of approximately 47 percent. As a first step to help make up that lost income – and keep dollars flowing to local restaurants – commission officials are setting up a drive-through/pickup point for several restaurants in the parking lot of Lake Terrace Convention Center.

“We’re setting up tents along our promenade area, and the tent will have a table, waste basket, a hot box and an ice box,” said Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission. “What our hope is, is that for residents who have to drive to restaurants that they may have difficulty finding, or getting in and out of – it’s basically a replacement for curbside service.

“So restaurants can have a space, people can come by and pick up their food and take it home or (wherever) they’re working. We can have that one common location that they can come and pick up food that they’ve already ordered and actually will never have to leave their cars.”

The concept will operate on a tentative schedule of 4-7:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays beginning March 27. Restaurants that have expressed interest in participating include, but are not limited to, Keg & Barrel, Twisted Skillet, Mugshots, Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, Pier 98 Bar & Grill and SouthMouth Deli.

The site also will offer free Wi-Fi for restaurateurs and patrons.

“Hopefully, this will give an ability to any restaurant that wants to participate to just have a common location,” Taylor said. “And let’s say you’ve got a family and the parents don’t want chicken fingers. You can go to multiple restaurants, pick up pizza and lasagna at one location and then drive over and get your kids chicken without having to go to different areas.”

That effort is being held in cooperation with Hattiesburg Pop-Up Eats, a new initiative that partners with local restaurants to deliver family-style meals to neighborhoods in the area. Hattiesburg Pop-Up Eats was started in the Bellegrass subdivision by Hattiesburg resident Grace Johnson, co-founder of Bread, an organization that focuses on economic development, brand building, graphic design and culture development, among other endeavors.

“People would be walking and everybody would stay distant from family units, and they would pick up and go right home,” who started the initiative with the help of Bellegrass owner John Adcock. “So we knew people couldn’t go out – they need to stay in the neighborhood – so we said, let’s pop up a restaurant in the neighborhood.

“There were a lot more restaurants that were getting in touch with us or Bellegrass, just asking if they could be a restaurant that could come out there – SouthMouth and Sully’s and a few other restaurants. It was working – it was keeping restaurants at least alive. And that was my biggest thing – I want to keep employees employed and restaurants alive during this time.”

Currently, Pop-Up Eats Hattiesburg officials are working to get in touch with various neighborhoods interesting in hosting the initiative. During that process, Taylor reached out to Johnson to integrate the effort at Lake Terrace with that of Pop-Up Eats Hattiesburg.

“Where Lake Terrace will be a destination location for three days – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – then Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we are coordinating with the neighborhoods to make the neighborhoods destinations,” Johnson said. “So we’re just trying to do something where at least six days a week we’re keeping restaurants viable, available, coming to neighborhoods, going to destinations like Lake Terrace. It’s an effort to help the industry that’s getting hit the hardest.”

More information on Pop-Up Eats Hattiesburg can be found at www.popupeatshattiesburg.com.

Taylor said he and his staff are concerned about the financial stability of local restaurants, especially because much of that industry already operates on such a thin margin.

“We know it’s going to be very difficult, so our interests and our sympathies lie with them first and foremost, to survive and to make it so that we can kind of get back to the normal we’ve known and enjoyed,” Taylor said. “And then secondly, we are aware that restaurant sales support, in part, the activities of the convention commission.

“So in looking at our future down the road, all things point to whatever we can do to help the restaurants continue in this difficult time and then come back strong when things are a little easier to operate in our former patterns.”

Taylor said he and his staff take very seriously the mandate of the commission, which dictates to first and foremost put money into the local economy. Officials have adhered to that by drawing in visitors to its facilities, including the zoo and the convention center, both of which have a large number of guests who are from outside the immediate area.

“Surprisingly, 47 percent of all people that visit the zoo live outside of the Pine Belt, so that’s money that wouldn’t be here,” Taylor said. “So we feel very strongly that we need to survive, as do the restaurants, and get back in business as soon as possible so that we can have a place for people to come, and to help support our private sector.

“We’ve got to look beyond and look to the outcome. As people say, it’s hard to imagine, but (this situation) will come to and end, and at that time, are we as a city going to be able to bounce back? And that means every part of our city – restaurants, hotels, retail, and of course all the service industries as well.”

As of Wednesday morning, the convention commission’s employees have been divided into small groups of four people or less to tackle projects with the end of the pandemic in mind. Much of those efforts will be focused at the zoo, where the public has been anticipating the arrival of the upcoming giraffe exhibit.

“Obviously, if we can escalate the time frame for opening the giraffe exhibit, that will draw more people in,” Taylor said. “People have a lot of pent-up demand and want to get out of the house and take their kids out.

“When it’s safe to do so, we want to open the zoo – that will help us with earned income, but also will pull people into Hattiesburg, especially something like the giraffes. So that’s a prime focus for us, is to get the giraffe exhibit, if at all possible, escalated on when we open it, timing it after the crisis has abated.”

The commission will then focus on the Oseola McCarty house, which was recently relocated from Miller Street to East 6th Street to become part of the commission’s East 6th Street Museum District. McCarty, a former washerwoman in Hattiesburg, became perhaps the University of Southern Mississippi’s most famous benefactor when she donated approximately $150,000 of her life savings to the university to provide scholarships for students in need of financial assistance.

“This is the 25th anniversary of her gift, and she epitomizes community spirit and giving to others,” Taylor. “So we feel like that’s our second project – both the zoo and Oseola’s house – as something we can put our staff on.

“They can work safely, they can work independently, they can work in a separated manner so that they are not endangering themselves or others. For now, that will keep our staff as much as we can.”

In the meantime, commission officials are looking at finances, including operating costs, and reduce any non-essential item’s demand on utilities.

“Obviously, we’ve got investments at the buildings,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to look at the Saenger – you can’t turn the air off at the Saenger. You can raise it to a certain level, but you’re going to damage your buildings if you don’t keep them climate controlled.

“So we’ve got some basic costs, but we’re going through every single thing we can to say if we’re not operating, how we reduce that cost. So it’s day by day and week by week.”