Citizens express views on renewal plan

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 4, 2002

Urban planning consultant Jimmy Gouras, of Jimmy Gouras and Associates, explains the city’s urban revitalization program to downtown business owners Friday during a public hearing at City Hall Annex.(The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[03/02/02]Most comments made Friday at a public hearing for the Vicksburg downtown revitalization program were in favor of the plan presented by city officials.

No action was taken by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen to approve to the plan after the meeting. About 80 people attended the two-hour public comment portion of the hearing.

While most expressed their support for the plan to clear downtown of “slum” and “blight,” some said that city officials needed to get more information to the business owners in the area.

“I’ve been working on my project for four years and it’s really hard on me because I don’t know what is going on,” said Willie Peaches, owner of Faces, 913 Washington St.

Faces is one of 20 businesses identified in the revitalization plan to be moved. Peaches also owns several buildings in the 900 block of Washington Street that have been identified by the city as contributing to the “slum” and “blight” in the area.

“I don’t want to get into a racial battle, but you need to answer our questions so we can know what is going on,” Peaches said.

While race was not brought up often during the hearing, Earnest McBride, who identified himself as president of the Vicksburg Community Housing Development Organization, said that the proposed revitalization plan under the state urban renewal law is unfair to minority business owners.

“I’ve seen urban renewal plans advertised as wonderful, but they are nothing but scams,” McBride said, referring to the federally funded program in the 1970s.

“That was a deliberate plan to remove most of the black businesses in downtown,” He said.

McBride pointed out that of the 20 businesses being moved under the urban renewal plan, 10 are owned by blacks. Four are owned by large corporations or non-profit organizations and six are owned by whites.

But not all of the black business owners expressed opposition to the plan.

Reo Slaughter who owns two businesses in the 1500 block of Washington Street, the Washington Street Diner and Reo’s, said he had met previously with Mayor Laurence Leyens about plans to move his businesses. Slaughter said he is excited about the change coming to downtown.

“I just want to say that I want to be a part of this project and that I am looking forward to it,” Slaughter said.

Mike Kavanaugh, owner of Rocking Horse Motors, 20 N. Washington St., also expressed his support for the plan that includes moving his business.

“I would like to say thank you for this plan,” Kavanaugh said.

Officials announced plans in August to begin the new round of public works in downtown under a state law that allows municipalities to declare an urban renewal zone. Under that law, a city can acquire property identified as “slum” or “blight” for redevelopment.

The new urban renewal plan, following a federally funded effort in the 1970s, will cost about $5.6 million and is being funded as part of a $17.5 million bond issue by the city.

A detailed plan of the revitalization project was presented to the city board at the end of January and is available at the City Clerk’s Office. The public hearing is a required step in the process to declare an urban renewal zone.

Leyens had said earlier in the week the board might approve the plan after the hearing, but said Friday that they would accepted written comments until March 8 before voting on it.

He said that the plan could also be amended before being approved by the board.

“I’ve actually learned quite a bit today and we have been taking notes,” Leyens said.

The city plans to purchase properties in the urban renewal zone that do not meet city ordinances or for other development. The properties will then be restored by the city and sold for private development or sold to developers under contract to restore the property.

The city will pay the cost to move businesses under the plan.

“There are a lot of valid points made here today,” said North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young. “And we will address each and every one of them.”

Downtown plans include most of Washington Street between Depot and First East streets and most of the area between Washington Street and the Mississippi River.

Although Leyens personally owns at least four properties in the downtown area, all are specifically carved out to meet state conflict-of-interest criteria. Former candidate for mayor, Eric Rawlings, pointed out that Leyens could benefit by increased property values in the area as a result of urban renewal, but no funding for revitalization of structures under the plan can be spent on buildings outside of the zone, Leyens said.