This spring, two Florida-based developer-partners plan to start selling finished lots to builders for Horizon, the most ambitious post-Katrina redevelopment project in Mississippi to date, and one of the largest master planned communities currently in the works nationwide.
Phase One of Horizon calls for 8,000 single-family homes—mostly ranging from $125,000 to $300,000 and from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet—on 5,000 acres in McHenry, a town in Stone County, Miss., 24 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. The developers, under the name Mississippi Investors VI, paid around $20 million to purchase 11,000 acres in the county, and have another 12,000 acres under contract. As of late January, at least two large production builders—Meritage Homes and Holiday Builders—intended to buy an undisclosed number of lots at Horizon. Several smaller builders—mostly from the Houston area—were showing serious interest also.
The saga of Horizon, which is one of at least five communities in various stages of development in Mississippi, can be traced back to early 2006, and features a cast of thousands: 100,000, to be exact, which is the number of Mississippians who at that time were still living in 38,000 FEMA trailers, eight months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged or destroyed their homes. Another 40,000 Mississippians were refugees in other states. Their collective plight had become a symbol of that state's ineffectual rebuilding efforts.
Gov. Haley Barbour's vision of reshaping Mississippi into a New Urbanist paradise had met with stiff opposition from local municipalities. He was also feeling pressure to get something done fast from the business community, especially the gaming industry on which Mississippi is banking its future prosperity. Casinos preparing to reopen that summer worried they wouldn't be able to find enough employees if Mississippi's housing crisis wasn't addressed soon. “If you had told me a year ago that I'd be doing anything in Mississippi, I'd have said you were smoking banana peels,” says Ben Koshkin in an interview with BUILDER in late January. Koshkin is a Sugar Land, Texas–based land development consultant who is enlisting builders on behalf of Horizon's developers.
In March 2006, Barbour convened builders and developers from around the country and reportedly admitted that his state couldn't provide the 78,000 homes it needed immediately unless the private sector got involved big time, and that included installing infrastructure. Many production builders, used to buying finished lots, said thanks but no thanks, even after Barbour dangled two carrots: $650 million for water and sewer systems, and $15 billion in direct disaster relief for residents, which all but guaranteed that anyone who wanted to buy a house would be approved.
INLAND OPTIONS Mike Adkinson and Robert Windham were intrigued by the prospect. The two developers have worked together, on and off, since the 1960s, and built more than 15,000 apartments in Orlando, Fla., after Disney World opened in 1971. Windham gravitated to hotel management, while Adkinson owned American Designer Homes, which in the early 1980s was one of Texas' largest private builders.
Windham now owns a development and management services company in Pensacola, Fla., while Adkinson is a developer/ general contractor in Destin, Fla. After bumping into each other at a convention in Las Vegas, they formed Mississippi Investors VI to develop projects in that state. What they initially found, though, was a coastal region where building anything was dicey. Landowners wanted $50,000 to $100,000 per lot. Post-Katrina insurance rates were skyrocketing. Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, had placed moratoriums on trailer parks and septic tanks, which crimped modular home construction.
Barbour had urged all developers to look inland, where people had been migrating even before the storms. So Windham started buying parcels in Stone County, whose 19,000 residents live in bedroom communities to the state's large coastal metro centers. Horizon will be located 1.2 miles from where Interstate 67, a north-south corridor, will end when the highway is completed. That means workers living there could drive to jobs in Biloxi within 20 minutes, compared to the casino-related traffic congestion that's turned coastal Interstate 10 into a parking lot.