Mississippi Mayor Hails Return of Wal-Mart

Leo McDermott, Mayor of Pass Christian, Miss., was one of the local officials who met with President Bush today. McDermott talks about efforts to revive the city, and says a big boost came when Wal-Mart decided to rebuild their store, which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Leo McDermott, known as Chipper, is the mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi, one of the towns hardest hit by Katrina. He was among the local officials who met with President Bush in Mississippi today. Mayor McDermott, thanks for joining us.

LEO MCDERMOTT: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You and I met in Pass Christian last August, and back then you told that you're biggest fear was that your town might not pull through this. Is that still your fear?

MCDERMOTT: No. We're optimistic. We have some problems here that - everybody has different problems. Ours is that we're only six miles long and one mile wide, surrounded on three sides by water. But we're building back, getting people back at a pretty good rate here. It will never look like it did before because the yellow basins are requiring to build houses up a lot harder than they were before.

But we think the future will be bright. It's just going to take a little - we need a little time, that's all we need.

BLOCK: Well what, about three-quarters of the town was wiped out? Is that about right?

MCDERMOTT: Three-quarters of the town, a hundred percent of the businesses, every public building, all the schools, all the churches. It was close to annihilation.

BLOCK: And how many people are living in Pass Christian now, as compared with before Katrina?

MCDERMOTT: We had about 6,400 before the hurricane. We think we have 4,000 now.

BLOCK: More coming back, do you think?

MCDERMOTT: More coming back, and of course some won't come back. And then some have moved - since we're only a mile wide, some are a mile and a quarter from us. So they're like neighbors we can wave at, but then they're not inside the city limits.

BLOCK: Are there any businesses coming back down town?

MCDERMOTT: Oh yeah. We've got a few coming back. We got two restaurants down here now. We got another restaurant that is being built at the harbor, which is an easy sell when you get down by the water. We've got several other things that are on the planning board, so we think that a lot of good things are going to happen.

BLOCK: And the big news this month, I take it, is that Wal-Mart says it will rebuild were it was. It was completely destroyed in Katrina.

MCDERMOTT: Absolutely. They asked me how I felt, and that was the day after the Super Bowl, and I told them I know what Peyton Manning felt like getting the word that they're coming back.

BLOCK: There had been talk when we were there that that this Wal-Mart would become a Wal-Mart village. That there would be apartments and townhouses, things like that attached or nearby so that it could be sort of a new urbanist design. Is that going to happening?

MCDERMOTT: Well, I'm not sure. That concept was not a Wal-Mart concept. That was one by some people that have worked Wal-Mart in other cities that have helped them design suggestions other than what they normally have with the regular, just what they call the big box. So they were very - they were interested in it. Exactly what the exact words are going to be, we don't know yet other than the fact that they are coming back on the same spot. They bought about 10 parcels of land right there behind them, which is equivalent to about five acres. So they can, if they need to push the store further back since it's right on the beach, then they can do that now.

BLOCK: Is it a smart thing for Wal-Mart to rebuild where it was, so close to the water?

MCDERMOTT: We think it absolutely is. They're not, you know, they're up on the hill right there. So they had some protection right there. Hopefully, nobody will ever see a storm like this again, a hurricane.

BLOCK: So you'd be banking on just not having another Katrina coming in and taking it down again?

MCDERMOTT: We're banking on not having another Katrina for taking anything down again.

BLOCK: I guess you have to bank on that.

MCDERMOTT: That's exactly right.

BLOCK: Would you want to see something like that Wal-Mart village idea?

MCDERMOTT: That would be very good. I'd like to see Wal-Mart back, plain and simple. But if they can do that, too, that would add just add more to it without question. But we're interested in Wal-Mart just plain and simple. But if they want add a little spice to it and they can do that, that's even better.

BLOCK: And as a city or as - for the town, it would help your tax base?

MCDERMOTT: Absolutely would. It would be about 75 percent of our sales tax.

BLOCK: Mayor McDermott, how would you describe the morale of people in Pass Christian? Do they see tangible signs that things are getting better or do they pretty much feel, you know, we're still digging out, we're still stuck in trailers and dealing with paperwork?

MCDERMOTT: Well, the trailers are getting less and less, and the houses are going up more and more. But the people here are resilient. They've been through a yellow fever epidemic years ago. We've been through Hurricane Camille. So we've been through a lot of things. They're resilient here. They will all come back. It's a daunting task and the other towns on this coast are facing the same thing. But the biggest thing is they all come. And just we need a little time, and then, you know, we'll come back and everything will be fine.

BLOCK: Well, Mayor McDermott, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

MCDERMOTT: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Mayor Leo McDermott, mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi.

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