Mayor pushes urban renewal plan

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 28, 2002

[01/26/02]The details of a proposed revitalization plan for downtown Vicksburg will be presented at a public hearing March 1.

Mayor Laurence Leyens told about 50 members of Main Street Friday that completion of the required hearing will allow the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen to move forward immediately with urban renewal. He said the project should be finished 18 months after work begins.

“There is never going to be a better time to invest in downtown,” Leyens said.

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Leyens said he is encouraging others to purchase and revitalize downtown property and he has recently purchased property at 1208 Washington St. with plans to put in retail space and two apartments. Leyens currently owns five other buildings in downtown, but none of his properties is included in the urban renewal plan.

City officials announced plans in August to begin the new round of major public works in downtown Vicksburg and a plan to redevelop areas around the city waterfront and the shopping district.

About $5.6 million of a $17.5 million bond issue by the city is to be spent on the plan. Unlike the federal grant program of the 1970s that modernized downtown areas across the country, the city’s focus is to maintain the historic look of the area.

“Today’s urban renewal plan has nothing to do with” the way it was 30 years ago, Leyens said.

City architect David Clement, who is directing the urban renewal planning, said that in addition to acquiring “slum” or “blighted” property to be redeveloped, the city will complete by Feb. 15 plans for the vacant downtown parking lot adjacent to St. Paul Catholic Church. It also is working on plans to remove the tunnels connecting Washington Street to the parking garage on Mulberry Street.

“Washington Street still has some amazing assets,” Clement said.

During the federal urban renewal program in the 1970s, grant funds were used to modernize downtown and replace decaying infrastructure.

In addition, the program tore down many older buildings and left “holes” all over the downtown area, said city planner Ronnie Bounds.

“It tore them down just because they were vacant,” Bounds said. “There are still vacant lots sitting around that we’re trying to figure out what to do with.”

According to an initial report required for the urban renewal plan, 38 structures out of 67 structures in the proposed zone are deteriorated and defines as “slum” or “blight.” Also in that report, several roads, sidewalks and parking lots are identified as substandard.

State law allows cities to establish an urban renewal area and acquire property that can then be sold to developers with stated conditions of how the property will be used. The city also has plans to return all of Washington Street to two-way traffic.

“We had a rich past and we can’t bring back the past, but we as a community must decide what era we want to replicate,” Leyens said.

He said the urban renewal plan would restore the streets and buildings to the way downtown looked in the 1910s when Vicksburg was the largest city in the state. The city has already converted some gas lights along Monroe Street to open flames to resemble lighting used during that era.

“It’s something to get excited about,” Leyens said. “The money is in the bank and it’s going to happen.”

A time for the public hearing was not announced Friday.