Oak Street first to get new face with bond|[01/30/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One of the first areas to reap the fruits of a $16.9 million Vicksburg bond issue in September is Oak Street, where city crews have begun improvements meant to spruce up the north-south corridor that parallels Washington Street.

The area is historically a mixed-use zone, home to several bed-and-breakfast mansions and dozens of frame and middle-class homes, some in good shape and some in advanced stages of deterioration.

On Tuesday, city bricklayers were replacing concrete patching in the roadbed, another crew was readying ground for a sidewalk that is inching its way along the west side of Oak. Crews from Southern Tree Service were cutting branches above the sidewalk, which will stretch to Washington Street.

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The masons were fixing holes in the section of the road north of Fairground, where old brick surfaces were never paved over. The holes were daubed with concrete, which was dyed red for camouflage. The bricks they are placing are vintage Vicksburg, dark and hard and volcanic-looking, more than 100 years old.

“You know, this is all they had around here in Vicksburg. Every street around here had these bricks,” said Ernest Garrett, looking down Oak Street. The replacement bricks were taken up from Vicksburg streets paved long ago, Garrett said.

About $500,000 from the bond has been set aside for Oak Street, mostly for cosmetic work such as the sidewalks, plus shrubbery and repairs to storm drains and street lights.

Work in the area was seen by some as a threat to low-income residents of the area and triggered an effort to petition against the bond issue. Organizers failed to obtain the 1,500 signatures of registered voters that would be needed.

Mayor Laurence Leyens has called the area, which slopes toward the Mississippi River, some of the city’s best real estate and said he believes the city’s work could touch off a private sector revitalization.

Thomas Keen, a City of vicksburg employee, pointed to where the crew had laid about 40 yards of concrete on Monday, the day before, in squared-off blocks about 3 feet across.

“It takes about a day to dig (a bed for the concrete) and a day to pour it,” Keen said.

Jeff Richardson, director of Vicksburg’s landscaping department, said the plantings could take six months to a year, depending on whether city crews get side-tracked with other work.

“Since we’re doing it in-house, when emergencies happen, the street department … has to leave and fix something else,” he said.

Other uses for the money include paving city streets, building recreational facilities, and replacing the Washington Street bridge near Clark Street, a project for which the city will be reimbursed by money from the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Mansions operating as bed-and-breakfast businesses in the area include Cedar Grove, The Corners, Belle of the Bends, Annabelle and Flowerree.

Dan Lee, who owns Belle of the Bends with his wife, said he welcomes the improvements. They could ease his guests’ perceptions about the neighborhood, which he said is safe. Lee pointed out some run-down houses, of which there are many, rented to low-income tenants or vacant.

“Some people who are new to the South are a little taken aback by some of the houses,” he said. “It scares some of them. They don’t understand that there’s a lot of poverty here.”

Some of his guests seem afraid to walk the neighborhood. But Lee, who moved to Vicksburg from Denver, said that in four years of living there, he and his wife have “never really had a problem” with crime. He takes walks frequently.

The close proximity of Belle of the Bends and other tour homes to the Vicksburg Convention Center, just past the Depot Street intersection, should be a draw to people in town for conventions, Lee said. But very few of his guests fit that description.

“It’s a five-minute walk to the convention center. We could get a lot of conventioneers.”

Lee said he and other bed-and-breakfast owners once met with Leyens and discussed the proposed improvements.

“I can’t say that our occupancy is going to come up because we have sidewalks,” Lee said. “But it’s definitely an improvement to the community.”

Vickie Bailey, who lives at Oak and Fairground, said she thinks improvements are good as she left for work Wednesday, but added, there are roads in the neighborhood where infrastructure is in worse condition.

“Pearl Street is much worse than Oak Street,” she said. “There’s people there as well. Don’t just do it where the tourists travel. Are you doing it for the tourists or the people?”