Little projects mean lot to many, Leyens says|[01/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

Projects such as repairing city sidewalks don’t cost much, but have large economic benefits, Mayor Laurence Leyens said Thursday.

They are also &#8220what everybody cares about” Leyens said Thursday as guest speaker at the Vicksburg Rotary Club.

He made his comments in response to praise from a club member about the ongoing sidewalk restoration and construction program making sidewalks more-accessible, especially for older walkers.

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&#8220That’s a perfect example,” Leyens said. &#8220We’re talking about pennies relative to the city budget, but that’s what everybody cares about. We spent almost $1 million on the replacement of the low-pressure gas system up in the North Ward so that our children’s children would have dependable gas.”

That project got little publicity, Leyens said.

Sidewalk projects, on the other hand, impress both locals and visitors.

&#8220The economic impact is immeasurable,” Leyens said, adding that landscaping and maintenance by owners of private property are also noticed and appreciated. &#8220It’s so important to encourage this,” he said.

Leyens, in the second year of his second four-year term, said many efforts below the public’s radar matter, including city government’s internal workings.

&#8220I’ve been mainly working on the inside, trying to clean up our accounting practices, create accountability in government,” Leyens said.

The city hires an audit firm each year to examine books and report matters auditors believe should be corrected. The list of such corrections the past three years has fallen from 70 to 30 to seven pages, Leyens said.

&#8220That is improvement by far,” Leyens said.

The use of technology as a management tool is also being used, including in a system that is being tested and that will automatically track all 290 city vehicles. Tasks and locations of city workers will be tracked and probably made available to the public through the Internet, Leyens said.

&#8220I’d like to get it on the Web so that if you see Truck 35 on your street you can actually see why they’re there, what work order they’re working on because it’s public information,” Leyens said.

Economic development has been the overriding emphasis of his second term, Leyens said in the update. He and others are &#8220spending all of our time out in the field, trying to sell real estate, trying to promote (the creation of) businesses. And I think it not only affects our future economically but it also affects quality of life.

&#8220There are niche markets that are missing here that are very obvious, such as an ice-cream shop. We have 130,000 daily consumers; we certainly could support an ice-cream shop. But (such businesses) are not going to come; we’ve got to go out and find it and bring it in, so that’s what we’ve been working on so that you don’t feel as compelled to go to Jackson” for such activities.

In attracting business and investment the federal tax-incentive plan passed in response to Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Opportunity Zone, has helped, Leyens said.

&#8220It’s unbelievable,” Leyens said of the financial incentives offered in the zone, of which Warren County is part. &#8220It makes all the other stuff sort of moot at this point.”

Vicksburg also continues to need more affordable housing, Leyens said.

&#8220We have 5,500 people who drive to Vicksburg every day to work,” Leyens said, adding that the city’s current housing stock limits its ability to attract such commuters to move here.

An urban renewal plan – the second in as many city-board terms – was created by the board last year. It is designed to use measures like stepped-up code enforcement to spur private-sector redevelopment of the area south of downtown from the east side of Washington Street to the riverfront.

Of a $16.9 million bond issue also passed last year, about $600,000 was designated to be spent in the area, all on street and related improvements. A &#8220test project” between Veto and Depot streets is to begin within two weeks, with landscaping similar to that done on Halls Ferry Road in Marcus Bottom except on the sides of Washington Street instead of in the middle, Leyens said.

In addition two properties are to be purchased by the city government from its general fund.

&#8220The plan is to slow it down on Washington Street, make it a tourist corridor and re-invent residential living right on Washington Street proper. There’s a lot of commercial buildings that we’re hoping will disappear.

&#8220The whole purpose of the urban renewal plan is to take what I believe is our most-valuable asset and our most under-utilized real estate and to correct it,” Leyens said, emphasizing the value of the view from the area of the Mississippi River.

&#8220I hope that you in the private sector will think about it as a place to live, a place to invest,” Leyens said. &#8220There’s tremendous opportunity down there, undervalued property.”

In updates on other projects, Leyens said: