It’s been 16 months since Ground Zero Blues Club and Restaurant opened in downtown Biloxi, launching a renaissance of Howard Avenue.
Top blues musicians from across the country and local favorites entertain several nights a week. The venue has amassed a following of loyal fans who walked the carpet before the Ground Zero Academy Awards, support charity events and return often for dinner and a show.
The venue is in the historic Kress Building that operated as Kress Live entertainment venue for two years until it went out of business in 2016. Only a few office buildings were open and “for sale” signs hung in windows of many long-deserted buildings along Howard Avenue when Ground Zero made its debut in the building in February 2022.
In just over a year, few if any properties on the five-block stretch are still available. Even the vacant lot has new life. First Friday moved to a new home when the lot where the event was held each month was sold for a mixed use development.
An extreme makeover has the 94-year old Saenger Theatre looking grand again as work continues to restore the interior. Downtown apartments, luxury vacation rentals and restaurants on Howard Avenue are under construction, just open or coming soon.
Ground Zero and the development that’s followed has exceeded his expectations, says Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich. His dream of restoring Howard Avenue to the thriving downtown business district he remembers as a kid started by making traffic on Howard Avenue two-way again and paving the street with bricks.
“We’ve got plans to extend the bricks both ways,” he said, as he encourages the transformation to spread.
The Morgan Freeman effect in Biloxi
Biloxi has a history of great blues entertainment and It didn’t hurt to have Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman’s name on the new business — a Biloxi version of his original Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale.
The star of “Shawshank Redemption” and other blockbuster movies is a part owner of the Biloxi club. He was at Ground Zero in Biloxi during construction and slipped in again after it opened.
“He had a really good time,” and he returned with friends, said Lee Young, who owns and operates Ground Zero Biloxi with his brother Jeff.
“I think the Morgan Freeman name certainly provides international publicity,” Young said. Yet if the owners and their staff did not deliver a good product, the famous name would not have mattered, he contends.
They did deliver. In its first six months, Ground Zero Biloxi — along with the Clarksdale venue — made it onto the Rolling Stone list of 10 “Mississippi’s Must-See Music Venues.” Biloxi also scored five-star ratings for both the restaurant and music, Young said.
The menu features “The Morgan” special appetizer and “FoFo’s Barq’s Rootbeer Float,” and specialties from the Delta in between.
Fun for all people at Ground Zero museum
A big part of the success of Ground Zero is the welcoming staff and the atmosphere where young and older customers equally feel comfortable, Young said.
“Everybody from every walk of life is welcome,” he said. “Music seems to be a common denominator here among people — and food, of course.”
The opening year brought big names, premiers and sold-out concerts to Ground Zero Biloxi. South Mississippi’s own Chapel Hart played there soon after dazzling the audiences of “America’s Got Talent” and the Grand Ole Opry. Among the others who’ve played there are Irma Thomas, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and Maggie Rose, who was “a world of surprise and I’m now a huge fan,” said Daniel Givens, operations and events manager at Ground Zero.
“Playing at the Ground Zero in Biloxi is always a privilege,” said Jose Ramirez, Latin America’s number one blues artist.
“It’s the perfect mix that combines the raw tradition of the Mississippi blues with state of the art sound, lights and hospitality,” he said. “It’s definitely a highlight of my tours and the crowd is always hot and very receptive.”
Karen and David Johnson of Gulfport didn’t make it to the grand opening but went to a concert soon after — “and we’ve been hooked ever since,” she said.
“Everybody’s so friendly,” she said. “The food’s great.” What really draws them, she said, is the lineup of live entertainment.
“I look every day to see who new they have signed up,” she said.
“Ground Zero Biloxi always pushes me to give the extra mile as an entertainer and I love sending people home with an experience they’ll never forget,” Ramirez said. “I can’t wait to be back this September.“
Local artists have a home at Biloxi blues club
Johnson said she likes that Ground Zero also encourages local talent, like “Six String Andrew” Sullivan, who played at the opening last year and just graduated from Vancleave High School.
“I’ve probably played at Ground Zero 10 times now,” he said, and was due back on the stage June 8.
“It’s just been a really great year,” he said. He considered going to college out of state, but decided to study music at University of South Mississippi in Hattiesburg so he can still perform at Ground Zero in Biloxi and Clarksdale.
He especially appreciates the following of a group of fans known as the Warehouse who go to most all of his shows.
The Warehouse Krewe started in 1970 in New Orleans, said Michael and Tess Gioia, who moved from New Orleans to Picayune after Hurricane Katrina.
They frequented House of Blues and the Saenger in New Orleans before security became an issue.
“You just felt like it was dangerous,” she said. Costs soared in The Big Easy, she said. Parking was $40. A beer was $16.
At Ground Zero Biloxi, parking is free and the prices are reasonable she said. “The shows they are getting are headliners,” she said, and the staff is exceptional. “They treat us like royalty when we’re there,” she said.
They’ve been going to NOLA over 50 years, she said, and not one person at House of Blues knows their name. They are on a first name basis with the staff at Ground Zero.
The couple invited others to Ground Zero and have a following now, she said. Sometimes 20-40 people of “The Warehouse Krewe” join them for shows in Biloxi.
“We’ve become such a family,” said Ground Zero assistant manager Lindsey Barr-Muller.
The big events
The Johnsons spent New Year’s at Ground Zero and both of their birthdays. “It seems like there’s always a celebration going on,” she said.
The venue venue hosted an Oscar Night Party, where the Johnsons and others walked the carpet in their finest. Others dressed as Lady Gaga, Elton John, Prince and their favorite celebrities.
A second blues fest is planned for the fall, and recently Ground Zero hosted the First Shuck Nation party with the Biloxi Shuckers.
Young said what surprised him in this first year of operating Ground Zero is the number of people who have embraced Ground Zero and want to hold events there.
To accommodate more parties and special events, the area on the second level will close June 21 for renovations and open a couple weeks later as the new Back Room at Ground Zero. Young said they also hope to get elevator service to the third floor, a space large enough to accommodate 300 people or more, with a view down to the stage.
They continually change the food menu with the seasons, Young said, and keep trying new things so those who aren’t familiar with the blues will give Ground Zero a chance and see it’s not just a late night venue.
Since Mother’s Day they’ve added a Saturday and Sunday brunch with live music such as gospel and country, and no cover charge.
More to come at Ground Zero
Downtown is a work in progress, says Young, as he restores the historic Barq Building into commercial on the ground floor and apartments above.
These old buildings have structural issues, he said, which delayed the opening of the apartments while engineering was done to allow for balconies overlooking the action that will be happening on Howard.
The scope of work is The District on Howard that encompasses several historic buildings near MGM baseball park and the Saenger and within walking distance of the Beau Rivage and Hard Rock casinos.
“It is the right idea, the right plan,” said Gilich, who had the vision for revitalizing the downtown and said the Youngs brought the financial might of $50-$60 million of transformation to downtown.