Click "Play" below the image to hear Ellis Anderson describe why she wants to be a watchdog on how Bay St. Louis is rebuilt.
As the rebuilding process in Bay St. Louis shifts into high gear, longtime artist and newly minted development watchdog Ellis Anderson plans to do her best to occasionally tap the brakes.
Anderson, a 48-year-old jewelry maker, already had assumed a high-profile role in the battle over development in Bay St. Louis, Waveland and surrounding Hancock County before Katrina came through and literally bulldozed nearly all of the historic buildings that she was trying to protect from "inappropriate neighbors."
Now the co-founder of Coastal Community Watch, a grassroots non-profit organization formed to fight planned condominium projects in the area, said the goal has shifted to trying to at least preserve the flavor of the town she loves.
"I don’t want to see us be Gulf Shores (Ala.)," she said, referring to the miles-long strand of condominium developments and strip malls that has sprung up in the coastal vacation resort south of Mobile over the past decades. "It would break my heart. … I don’t want to have to move. I want to be a little old lady in this house. I want to be the town eccentric, reading tarot cards or something."
Anderson said Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the county already were "under attack" by developers before Katrina turned up the pressure on local government by gutting their economies and slowing tax revenues to a trickle.
"The cities and the counties need the money more than ever now to rebuild … (and) it’s going to be very appealing to put high-density housing on the beach," said the North Carolina native, who spent more than a decade selling jewelry from a shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans before moving to the Gulf Coast in 1984
But Anderson already has shown herself to be a resourceful foe.
She formed Coastal Community Watch with local painter Lori Gordon in May -- the very day that county supervisors approved a zoning change that cleared the way for a condominium and casino project outside the nearby community of Clermont Harbor. She then proceeded to hire well-known environmental attorney Riley Morris to file a lawsuit to stop the project, figuring she’d borrow money if necessary to pay his retainer.
Fortunately for her bank balance, the plan to fight back struck a chord with the town’s populace.
"We raised about $10,000 on a weekend," she recalled. "I had somebody leave a $500 check in my shoe on the front porch. As soon as the word got out, I had people writing checks and just thrusting them at me."
As the campaign to block the county project and head off other proposed developments in Bay St. Louis and Waveland gained steam, Anderson sold the gallery she had been running in the Old Town area, figuring she could work part-time making jewelry and devote more time to the organization.
Hurricane Katrina changed the equation, as it did for so many of her neighbors. But in an odd twist, it freed up more time for her to devote to the cause by destroying the shop where all her jewelry-making tools were stored.
"I was lucky my house came through fairly unscathed and I don’t have a business anymore, so just six months of my life I’m going to take a little sabbatical and focus on this," said Anderson, Anderson, who lives in an old schoolhouse with her dogs, Frieda, a 13-year-old terrier mix and Jack, a 5-year-old border collie mix. "I don’t know if it will do any good or not, but somebody has to say something. ... And I just don’t like the idea of a few people making decisions for everybody without any input."
In addition to the more than 800 members of Coastal Community Watch that she will be representing, Anderson undoubtedly will enliven whatever public meetings she attends with the passion she feels for her adopted hometown.
"It was so quaint, so charming and quaint," she said, remembering Bay St. Louis as it existed before Katrina and, she hopes, as it will again.
"... That was the essence of this town. It did have that great ‘Mayberry’ feel to it. … It felt safe, and charming and American and relaxed and open and Southern and very, very friendly. It has a real sense of community. When you walked down the street and saw people, you knew them."
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