YES AND NO VCVB backs rec complex, not funding proposal

Published 11:28 am Friday, March 23, 2012

A proposed sports complex for Vicksburg won the backing of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors Thursday night, but not the plan to fund it.

“You don’t ask for money for something like this without having a concrete plan for the expenditures,” board member Betty Bullard said. “Public money demands accountability.”

The board voted 9-0 to approve a resolution supporting efforts to plan and develop a sports park, but did not endorse a proposed ½ to 1 percent countywide sales tax to pay for it.

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Mayor Paul Winfield wants to levy a countywide sales tax to pay off up to a $20 million loan to buy land and develop the sports complex at an undetermined site in Warren County outside the city limits.

Board member Patty Cappaert did not attend the meeting, and the 11-member board has an unfilled vacancy. Rocky Smith resigned in January citing the duties of his job at the U.S. Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center.

The decision came after Winfield and Michael Hudson, general manager for the Hampton Inn and Suites, discussed the sports complex and the proposed sales tax. Hudson represented the Vicksburg’s Chapter of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, which he said supports the sales tax proposal if it exempts the city’s hotels and restaurants.

City hotels currently assess a total sales tax of 10 percent on rooms. Restaurants assess an 8 percent sales tax on food and beverages.

“I appreciate the fact that they support the sports complex,” Winfield said after the meeting. “It’s unfortunate that they chose not to support the funding mechanism. I think it’s unfortunate that a handful of people sitting around a table would act to not allow the citizens to vote on the proposal.”

VCVB board members cited a lack of plans for the park and a specific location in deciding not to support the funding plan.

“We’re still in the dark about what it’s going to be and where it’s going to be,” said Bullard, whose late husband, Nat Bullard, was a Vicksburg mayor and a chancery court judge and whose daughter Sally Bullard is a member of the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees.

Board member Shirley Waring questioned Winfield several times about his lack of a plan for the park.

“What’s the plan?” she said. “You’ve got to have some sort of idea what you’re going to do. How will you know how much money you’re going to need?”

“The elephant in the room is what is it and where’s it going to be,” board member David Day said. “You’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Winfield said getting funding for the sports complex and planning the project are separate issues.

“We need to have the funding in place before we can begin buying land and planning the complex,” he said. “We are trying to get our financing in order.”

Winfield said he needs the support from the VCVB, the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and the Warren County Board of Supervisors to keep the project going. The mayor is expected to meet with the supervisors at their work session Monday.

“If this group doesn’t support it, we can just sit back and watch the growth going on around us,” he told the board. “We have an excellent location here, but we need to take advantage of it. We have an opportunity to be a hub community to sports.”

Winfield introduced the countywide sales tax at a March 12 meeting on the sports complex. He said the plan was more fair and equitable than his previous plan to increase the city’s 2 percent hotel tax to 4 percent and add a 1.5 percent food and beverage tax. The city’s hotels and restaurants also pay a 1 percent county tax on hotel rooms and all food and beverages sold. The 1 percent tax goes to the VCVB.

Hudson said the increased hotel tax would have affected the local hotels’ ability to negotiate with travel and event planners and affected business travelers, including some whose rooms are paid for by local businesses.

If the sales tax plan gets community support, Winfield said, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen will rescind the resolution asking the Mississippi Legislature to allow the city to increase the hotel tax and levy the 1.5 mill food and beverage tax and replace it with a sales tax resolution.

He estimated a 1 percent citywide sales tax would raise about $5.04 million a year. The ½ cent tax would raise about $2.5 million. If the proposal is approved by the Legislature, he said, 60 percent of the county’s voters must approve the tax before it can be levied.

“Who knows how much more we could raise if the county is included,” he said. “We could pay off the project much earlier.”

Winfield called the sports complex “a game-changer,” adding, “I’m here for our youth. This will be for local sports and tournaments so we can get our youth involved in activities so they’re not getting in trouble.”

Winfield began his push for a sports complex in January, and introduced the resolution for the hotel and food and beverage taxes on Feb. 19.

The city in 2003 paid $325,000 for a 200-acre tract on Fisher Ferry Road for a sports complex, but abandoned the project in 2009 after spending an additional $2.7 million for preliminary plans, engineering and dirt work.

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

Also, 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 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.