City’s beautification efforts taking root, showing blooms|[07/12/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 12, 2008

Behind the pretty flowers, blooming trees and beds of greenery around Vicksburg are seven men who “truly love their jobs,” said city landscape architect Jeff Richardson.

“My guys are all very passionate about what they do. I think it’s because people do tell them they’re doing a good job and pat them on the back and tell them they’re making a difference,” he said. “And, it’s seen by the people wanting to relocate here.”

This year, Vicksburg officials budgeted $684,860 for landscaping. In return, taxpayers have received services, such as grass-cutting at city-owned buildings, the planting of trees, the “beefing up” and building of flower beds, and maintenance to existing landscape and sidewalks throughout the city.

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“The city is getting a very good return on the money they put into this department,” Richardson said.

Improving the look of Vicksburg has been a continuous project for Richardson since he came on board in 1994, when he was charged with weeding the city’s Municipal Rose Garden on Monroe Street. Now, his job has grown to manning a crew responsible for the maintenance of city aesthetics, as well as improvements throughout.

But, making a difference in the way the city looks is a team effort and involves work from other city departments, he contends. It’s often the flowers popping with color that draw attention to the work that goes into each project.

“A whole host of things go into it before the flowers and shrubs,” Richardson said. “What people see doesn’t register. We’re maintaining the whole place and adding a little visual that’s exciting and catches the eye.”

One example of freshening up the city’s appearance was one of the department’s capital projects for the year. The beautification of Exit 1-A off Interstate 20, an area often referred to as the city’s front door, was done to create a park-like setting for visitors. In July 2007, Ameristar Casino executive Ray Neilsen and his wife, Nancy, gave the city $17,000 to go toward irrigating and planting shrubbery and flowers to beautify the area that leads motorists to and from Washington Street near the Mississippi Welcome Center. The city had to wait for permission from the Mississippi Department of Transportation before beginning the work, which was granted around March.

The moneyThe landscaping department was allotted about $684,000 this year for maintenance and landscaping. That money includes:Personnel — $322,830Supplies — $133,900

Services — $150,000Capital projects — $78,000Future projectsReconfiguring the intersection at Grove and Levee streets to create a “legitimate” three-way stop to slow truck traffic and make it safer for tourists.

Regrading the public parking lot next to the Firehouse Gallery, which is owned by the city and leased to the Vicksburg Art Association.Landscaping near Cedar Hill Cemetery.Beautification along Oak Street.Rehabilitating existing plant beds along Mission 66.”We finished planting two weeks ago,” Richardson said. “We still haven’t put the perennials in. We’ll probably wait until the fall, since it’s the end of the growing season.”

Though the low-lying plants Richardson intends to plant will have to wait, the area already has had a major face-lift, he said.

“It looks a lot better right off the bat. The meat and potatoes of the planting is out there,” he said.

In addition to the $17,000 from the Neilsens, the city budgeted $26,000 for the project, which paid for irrigation, creating two bores under the road and purchasing shrubs and plants. A separate project, paid for with a Transportation Enhancement Grant from MDOT, allowed the department to purchase $20,000 in trees, about 160, to be planted between Interstate 20 and U.S. 61 South.

“That was tied into Exit 1-A. The (Board of Mayor and Aldermen) wanted to clean up the entrance corridor, so we adopted a section of the interstate and got permission to go in and clean up those trees,” Richardson said. “In the years to come, there will be a nice hardwood forest in the median. It’s the front door to the state and to Vicksburg.”

Other capital projects, which totaled $78,000, included repairing and maintaining the north end of the Vicksburg Convention Center parking lot, where pavement was falling in, and site preparation for the Playground at Catfish Row.

Mayor Laurence Leyens has been an advocate for beautifying the city since he was first elected in 2001. While other administrations focused on constructing city buildings and maintenance of existing flowers, Leyens has put a lot of emphasis on planting new trees and flowers and, overall, cleaning up Vicksburg’s look.

“It’s one of (the city’s) smallest budgets, but we get the largest bang for our buck,” Leyens said. “It has a direct, absolute impact on economic development. I wish we could have more, faster – more flowers, more trees and less trash. Every developer who comes here talks about how beautiful our city is.”

The first of two bonds issued under Leyens’ back-to-back administrations allotted about $12 million of the $17.5 million in 2001 to landscaping and street improvements, Richardson said.

While it’s hard for Richardson to see the fruits of his labor as he moves from project to project – a balance of “never-ending” maintenance and the addition of “special things” – he knows the big picture is clear.

” If you keep a place up, it gives neighbors an incentive,” he said. “That’s what we try to do.”

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said that while Richardson and his crew are out putting in hard, long hours, the result of their work creates a buzz around town.

“We hear it from people visiting – at the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the convention center, the Chamber of Commerce and business owners,” he said. “We hear people saying, ‘Y’all’s community is clean.’ It makes a difference when you beautify an area and keep it clean.”