River museum a treasure worth keeping

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 20, 2014

They say business is the engine of society. A logical compliment to that maxim would be that people are the fuel to that engine.
A Vicksburg spin on those concepts is quite simple as it relates to news that the contract that staffs the Lower Mississippi River Interpretive Site apparently will be allowed to run out in October. It means there’s a $23 million engine built with our tax dollars that’s about to burn up. Short of help, it will be a black mark on the community’s otherwise shiny reputation for charitable service.
Planned for nearly two decades, the museum at Washington and Jackson streets was financed entirely by appropriations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a period of a dozen years. The concept began in 1995, when the City of Vicksburg purchased the retired MV Mississippi IV for $1. The title was returned to the Corps in 2007, when the hulking vessel was slow-rolled down Washington Street to the museum site.
Its main building was built in phases over the next five years. Its exhibits include a 50-seat theater where visitors can watch videos about river history, a mural of the Vicksburg riverfront circa 1910 that circles the theater room and interactive displays of the river’s culture and evolution as the Corps developed flood control methods. A mock-up of one of the refugee tents that lined the Delta after the 1927 flood stands near a 1,515-gallon aquarium that holds species of fish native to the river, including catfish.
Out back, a miniature version of the river between Greenville and Vicksburg is the best 5 inches of water for which parents with young children who need to burn off some energy can ask. Aboard the restored MV Mississippi IV next door, a simulator recreates what it was like to pilot the 1,450-ton vessel during its run as workboat for the Corps. Cabins are restored with freshened beds to recreate where the boat’s workers lived.
To keep all that fun stuff for generations to come — thereby keeping what’s truly a public building in every sense of the word out of the dreaded “vacant” category — it needs people to run it. In 2012, Ridgeland-based Service Specialists Inc. contracted with the federal government to operate the museum. That agreement expires Oct. 31 and the Corps said this past week civic groups and other individuals are more than welcome to fill in the gap and volunteer their time at the facility.
“Please help us keep this valuable tourist spot open for all to enjoy,” Corps spokeswoman Shirley Smith said.
Vicksburg and Warren County prides itself on charitable giving and a volunteer spirit that’s tough to match. It’s particularly visible at holiday time. The timing of the staffing contract’s expiration coincides with the run-up to the holiday season, so interest ought to be piqued.
All you river experts out there should take note. Your river needs you. And by extension, your fellow Americans need you. Why? Because their tax dollars built the museum, that’s why.
Perhaps by July Fourth, when fireworks fired just across the canal from the museum will light the night sky for all the world to see, there’ll be some people lined up to make the transition at the facility barely noticeable.
Prospective volunteers are asked to call Lawran Richter at 601-631-5287.