Mayor: Developers discussing purchase of Fisher Ferry tract

Published 11:34 am Thursday, March 15, 2012

Discussions with developers are under way to sell the city’s Fisher Ferry property, Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield said today.

Winfield would not name the developers or disclose their plans, but said the proposed project would not involve a residential development.

“I’m bursting like a bubble to speak about it, but I have to be cautious,” he told members of Port City Kiwanis at their weekly breakfast meeting. “There’s still a lot of details that have to be discussed.”

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He also said the city will repair existing ball fields at Bazinsky and Halls Ferry parks after a proposed recreation complex is operating.

The mayor would not disclose the price the city would ask for the 200-acre tract on Fisher Ferry, which was purchased in 2003 for $325,000 and where $2.7 million since has been spent on dirt work, plans and engineering

Winfield has said the Fisher Ferry site is not suitable for a proposed recreational complex, saying part of the property, including the access route, is in a flood zone.

He previously had said the property could be developed as a residential area, but backed off that today, citing the expense associated with elevating homes.

Winfield today discussed several city issues, but the sports complex dominated.

“The people of Vicksburg want a sports complex,” Winfield said. “We forced the dialogue.”

The board on Feb. 19 approved a resolution asking the Mississippi Legislature to pass a bill allowing the city to raise its hotel tax from 2 percent to 4 percent and levy a 1½ percent food and beverage tax, which would be in addition to the current 1 percent countywide food and beverage tax.

Monday, Winfield presented an alternate plan calling for a ½ to 1 percent countywide sales tax to pay off a loan of up to $20 million to buy land and develop the sports complex. The plan was developed, he said, after talking with the city’s restaurant and hotel associations, which opposed the new hotel and food taxes.

He said he planned to meet with the Warren County Board of Supervisors at its March 26 work session and with members of the city’s retail, restaurant and hotel associations to discuss the sales tax plan.

Members of the county’s legislative delegation said the hotel and food tax resolution is on hold pending discussions on the sales tax. If he gets community support for the countywide sales tax, Winfield said, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen will rescind the Feb. 19 resolution and replace it with one for the sales tax. The deadline to introduce local and private revenue bills in the Legislature is April 20.

“I don’t plan on spending $20 million on the sports complex,” Winfield said. “We can probably do it for $15 million to $16 million.”

He said the city’s business community will have to change the way it does business to handle the increased traffic created by the sports complex, which he said will allow the city to attract baseball and softball tournaments. He said hotels will have to grow.

“Right now, you can’t get a hotel room in Vicksburg on the weekend,” he said. “We’re not going to get very far in Vicksburg going one centimeter at a time. We want to make sure that the children we have matriculating through our schools have a reason to come home when they get out of school.”

The sports complex, he said, won’t be reserved only for tournaments.

“I want it to be used every day,” he said. “If we give our young people something to do, something to focus on, we’re going to start having a lot less crime.”

In addition to buying the Fisher Ferry property, the board in 2007 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 have included 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.

The project died after 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 the Aquila Group approached the city, the company would return the $250,000 feasibility study cost to the city if the complex did not materialize. More than four years later, the city has not been reimbursed. Winfield said the matter is in litigation.

Other topics discussed by Winfield this morning:

• He said the city has finished the past three fiscal years with a budget surplus, but gave no numbers. He said the city’s budget has been reduced from about $32 million when he took office in 2009, to $29 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

• Design work continues on the $8.8 million project to install an emergency water line from the city’s water plant on Haining Road south on North Washington Street to the military cemetery at Fort Hill, then along Fort Hill Drive to Jackson Street.

Vicksburg received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a second main water line from the water plant.