Winfield wants to spend millions on rec complex

Published 11:35 am Friday, December 30, 2011

With Mayor Paul Winfield’s plans to build a recreational complex for the city of Vicksburg, the playing field has expanded.

Winfield will ask the Warren County delegation to the Mississippi Legislature to introduce and shepherd a bill that would allow the city to increase two taxes to build baseball, softball and soccer fields and a walking trail at a location he declines to identify.

The bill would allow the city to borrow $18.5 million to $19.5 million, which would be repaid over 15 years with increased taxes on hotels, restaurants and bars.

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The current tax on hotels is 2 percent, and Winfield wants that tax to rise to 4 percent. On restaurants and bars, the current rate is 1 percent; Winfield wants that to be raised to 2.5 percent. The increases would be removed once the loan is paid off, he said.

Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, said he is working with Winfield to prepare the local and private bill seeking the increases, adding he wants to talk with the other members of the county’s delegation and local hotel and restaurant owners for their opinions on the tax. Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg, said he had heard about Winfield’s plan, but was not very familiar with it.

“I had hoped to talk with the mayor and city leaders about it before we go into the session,” he said. State Rep. George Flaggs Jr., D-Vicksburg, said no one has talked to him about the sports park or the hotel and food tax increases.

Attempts to contact Reps. Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson, and Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, were unsuccessful.

The game plan for a new city recreational complex has waxed and waned for years.

• In 2003, the City of Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen purchased for $325,000 200 acres off Fisher Ferry Road just south of St. Michael Catholic Church and announced plans to build a sports complex with softball and soccer fields and outdoor basketball courts.

The city dedicated $4 million from a $16.9 million bond issue to pay for dirt work and construction of the complex, but work was halted in 2009 when the city transferred $2.2 million of that money to help cover the $8 million expense of replacing the deteriorating railroad bridge on Washington Street near Clark Street.

Total cost so far: $325,000 for the purchase, and $2.7 million for preliminary plans, engineering and dirt work.

• In 2007, the City board hired USA Partners Sports Alliance of Jacksonville, Fla., for $250,000 to determine the feasibility of a proposed $25 million sports complex at Halls Ferry Park, including Bazinsky Field, proposed by the Aquila Group of Vicksburg. It would include baseball and softball fields and related amenities, a water park, a baseball stadium/ballpark and facilities for golf, soccer, volleyball, tennis and other activities. The Aquila Group would lead the construction and management of the fields and sports facilities.

A study by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality found the site was not suitable because part of Halls Ferry Park was built on what was once the city’s landfill.

Under an agreement between the city and USA Partners, which was hired after Aquila approached the city, the $250,000 feasibility study cost would be returned to the city if the complex did not materialize. More than four years later, the city has not been reimbursed.

City attorney Lee Davis Thames Jr. said the city has won a judgment against the company and its owner, Jay Daniels. He said the city is in the process of determining which of Daniels’ assets in Florida can be seized to recover the money.

Total cost, including Fisher Ferry, means the city has spent about $3 million on sports complex plans.

Now, just more than halfway through his four-year term, Winfield has said he will tell residents about his plans for a new complex after he has cost estimates in hand for purchasing and preparing.

City recreation director Joe Graves said the mayor hasn’t talked to him about the proposed complex, adding, “when they’re ready, I guess they’ll call us in and let us know.”

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said he, Winfield, Thames and city buildings and inspection director Victor Gray-Lewis toured the parcel Winfield likes. He said it is between Culkin Road and River Region Medical Center on U.S. 61 North, which is not in the city limits. Mayfield said the property is owned by Vicksburg businessmen John Bell and Pete Buford.

Buford would not confirm that.

Bell declined to comment, saying, “You’ll have to talk to the city about that.”

Thames would not confirm Mayfield’s comments, but said, “He shouldn’t have told you that.”

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said he hasn’t talked with Winfield about the newest site and he hasn’t seen it. He said the board needs to reach a decision on Fisher Ferry before buying any more property.

“It’s a waste of time and $2 million, and we need to go in (to Fisher Ferry) and start again,” he said. “When we stopped that project we had the pads built for six adult softball fields at Fisher Ferry. All we had to do was go in and build them. That was our biggest need.”

“We’ve spent $2 million out there and we need to determine how we’re going to account for that to the people,” Mayfield said. “We have to reach a decision (on Fisher Ferry). You can’t advance until you’ve covered your rear.”

County land records show Bell and Buford own a 38-acre spot in the area Mayfield says is under consideration, but no one is discussing the potential price tag.

Property owners with land adjacent to the acreage, which includes giant bluffs and low flatlands, said they have not been contacted by the city about their property.