Mayor asks state to eye contract on rec complex

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 31, 2010

In an effort to recoup $250,000 spent in 2007, Mayor Paul Winfield wants the state auditor’s office to review a contract the city signed with a Florida-based company for a sports complex study that was never delivered.

“The contract to me is disturbing,” said Winfield, also an attorney. “This is an out-of-state company that appears to be a shell company, and we basically paid them $250,000 up front for a feasibility study that we don’t have.”

The contract is not the only recreation-related matter that has the mayor’s attention. Winfield said he is also unhappy with how spending of $4 million toward a sports complex off Fisher Ferry Road is going. The project lacks direction, he said, and he wants another engineering firm to step in and provide better oversight.

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“I think it’s ridiculous; the mess we have out there. There’s no clarity there. We don’t have a delineated scope of action,” Winfield said. “That project is one that needs some serious project management by a firm that has a background in sports complex management.” 

Vicksburg, at the behest of South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, bought the 200-acre Fisher Ferry tract from private owners for $325,000 in 2003. Four more acres were purchased from St. Michael Catholic Church for access.

But a pitch for private redevelopment of Halls Ferry Park intervened and Fisher Ferry was put on hold. When the private project, for which the $250,000 was advanced, did not materialize, the city’s focus turned back to the undeveloped Fisher Ferry site.

Two engineering firms have separately overseen the project since it was relaunched in 2007. ABMB Engineers Inc. had oversight of the project in its planning stages. Later, Pickering Architecture and Engineering was hired by the Aquilla Group, the private investment group that had been partnering with the city to develop a new complex — and paid for the design — until economic conditions forced Aquilla to pull out a year ago. Aquilla continues as a contract manager of some youth recreation activities, but is no longer involved in developing new venues.

After Aquilla pulled out, the city retained Pickering’s services and has had the company under contract to oversee phase one of the project, which is nearing completion, at a cost not to exceed $140,000.

The $4 million earmarked for the work is coming from a $16.9 million bond issue, the same source of money for some redevelopment along Oak Street and replacing the Washington Street rail overpass at Clark Street.

Clear River Construction was awarded a $2.38 million bid by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen in December 2008 to begin clearing, grubbing and grading the Fisher Ferry site in anticipation of more work to follow to create sports fields, trails, parking, restrooms and concessions areas. Public Works Director Bubba Rainer said Clear River has encountered some setbacks resulting from rains, but is nonetheless nearing completion of the first phase of the two-phased project.

About 900,000 yards of dirt was to be moved in phase one. About 700,000 to 750,000 have been moved, Rainer said, but the wet soil conditions — also due to natural moisture content of the area’s soil — may keep them from moving all of the 900,000 yards.

“We can’t fault the contractor. We were hoping we wouldn’t get into the high moisture content soil we’ve gotten into, and there’s not much they can do with it,” Rainer said.

A change order to the contract was proposed to deal with the wet soil at an added cost of $360,000, but Rainer said city officials decided to instead include the work in phase two of the project.

“They’re going to move as much dirt as they can without the change order,” said Rainer, adding some pipe work and the construction of an entrance road are also included in phase one.

Rainer said he did not know when phase two of the complex work — which includes physical and electrical infrastructure, parking areas, field construction, fencing and lighting — would be put out to bid. When phase two is put to bid, engineering services will also be advertised for if the city decides to cut ties with Pickering.

“I haven’t been real happy with them,” said Beauman, who served as parks and recreation director and is now in his third term at City Hall. “The progress has been tied up because, in my opinion, the engineers are not doing the best job that they could. The company doing the actual ground work has been tops, but I wouldn’t be opposed to looking at other engineering firms as we go forward.”

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield, now in his second term and not in office when the Fisher Ferry tract was purchased, doesn’t mince words about the decision. “From what I’ve seen, that’s the worst mistake made by the City of Vicksburg that has ever been thrust on the citizens,” Mayfield said. “That place is a joke. It’s the worst headache I’ve had to deal with since I’ve become alderman.”

Regardless of the lack of foresight, both Winfield and Mayfield said the city has no choice but to remain committed to the park’s completion.

“Now that we’ve spent as much as we have, we have to stick it out and find a way to make it work,” Mayfield said. “I don’t think we’re dragging our feet on it. I’ve never felt that. It’s just that the property has all kinds of problems — hills, hollows, underground springs — and we keep running into roadblocks every time we get started on something.”

Beauman has said he knew portions of the undeveloped Fisher Ferry tract flooded, but said those areas would be used as buffers or not developed.

Regarding the aborted Halls Ferry redevelopment, the $250,000 was advanced to an entity called USA Partners Sports Alliance, which touted a $25 million complex to be built on the site of the existing ball fields. The project was enlarged, on paper, and investment was later increased to $40 million. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality derailed those plans when it determined soil at Halls Ferry Park should not be disturbed because some of the fields were built on a former city landfill.

The money was to be returned if the promoters deemed the project unfeasible or failed to raise $2.5, but extensions were granted and more time passed.

Former Mayor Laurence Leyens announced plans to file suit against USAPSA in late April 2009, but was beaten by Winfield in the mayoral election a little more than a month later. Former City Attorney Nancy Thomas, who had handled the USAPSA contract, was named municipal court judge shortly after the election and replaced as city attorney by Lee Davis Thames Jr.

Winfield on Monday sent the 10-page contract to the state auditor’s office for review, marking the first move his administration has made to recoup the $250,000.

Lisa Shoemaker, spokesperson for the auditor’s office, said the contract had not reached their office as of Friday. She said the state auditor’s office may not be able to make a decision on the issue.

“If it’s a contractual issue, that’s not something the auditor’s office will have jurisdiction over,” Shoemaker said. “We’re going to have to get it in our hands and have someone take a look at it, but the auditor would not have jurisdiction over a municipal issue.”

Under state law, city actions are not inside the scope of the state auditor’s activities. Still, Winfield hoped the state auditor’s office would return an opinion on the contract in about a month if it is able to do so, and said from there the city will begin looking at its legal options for recovering the money.

“I don’t see another way around it,” said Winfield about the possibility of a lawsuit against USAPSA or its chief executive officer, identified as J.D. Daniel. Repeated efforts to contact Daniel for comment have failed.

Winfield did say Daniel wanted to set up a payment schedule with the city after Winfield entered office in July, and pay about $18,000 a month. However, Winfield said he did not want to modify the contract and make himself liable, as he had nothing to do with the original contract.

“It’s just a real bad situation,” said the mayor, who added he has “to be optimistic” about the odds of the city recovering the $250,000.


Contact Steve Sanoski at