Birney Imes: Harry and Susan and the playing fields

June 7, 2009

Birney Imes - birney@cdispatch.com

 

Susan Mackay can feel the clock ticking. 

 

With less than a month to go in office, she desperately wants to see the realization of one of her political goals, the siting of a recreation complex on the 156 acres of Army Corps of Engineers land adjacent to the Riverwalk and just south of Highway 82. 

 

In light of her defeat by Joseph Mickens in Tuesday''s municipal elections, time is running out for the Ward 2 Councilman. Mackay was elected in a special election in early 2008 after the death of her husband Doug Mackay, who held the position. She lost to Mickens by about 40 votes. 

 

"I go between being sad and angry," Mackay said Friday afternoon when we talked. "I''ve been looking over the voter rolls, and 60 of my friends didn''t vote." 

 

Wednesday morning at 9, Mackay and the City Council will be meeting with Lowndes supervisors and the Parks and Rec Board to hear and discuss an evaluation of the three properties under consideration for a recreation complex. 

 

Kevin Stafford of Neel-Schaffer will present the group a cost analysis and environmental impact study of each of the sites. "We''re going to discuss the pros and cons of each site," says Mackay, who has no idea when or how the decision will be made. 

 

Neither does Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders. 

 

Sanders is the leading proponent of putting the sportsplex in Burns Bottom, a low area adjacent to and including the Hitching Lot. Sanders envisions the sportsplex as a park that will complement downtown, extend the Riverwalk and clean up what he calls a blighted neighborhood. 

 

The fallacies to Sanders'' thinking are multitude. Except for a handful of homes, if that, his Burns Bottom scenario will leave untouched the "blighted" neighborhood. The land in question is low and swampy and will have to be filled. 

 

"Any time I''ve talked about gangs down there, I''ve been told to shut up," said Mackay who acknowledged that some arrests have lessened that problem. "That''s the whole thing; this is not going to clean up the blight," she said. 

 

Sanders dismisses the idea of future residential development in the Bottom. "There''s no way condos can be built in the flood plain," he said. Later in our conversation he contradicted himself saying a recreational complex is the only way Burns Bottom can be cleaned up, "unless some developer comes in and buys it." 

 

"If we could develop that area so that it is a living neighborhood," Mackay says of the area surrounding the Hitching Lot, "I could see (it being) such a plus. Developing it as a sportsplex wipes it off the tax rolls." 

 

On the subject of Burns Bottom, Sanders speaks with the fervor of tent revivalist: "Tied in with the Riverwalk, this could be a huge green area for Columbus, like (New York City''s) Central Park," he says adding that the Corps land could also be purchased. To his credit, Sanders wants to preserve as much of the natural beauty as possible, like a gigantic cypress growing on the northwest corner of an empty block there. 

 

While it may be a good idea to develop and connect Burns Bottom with the Riverwalk, the area lacks room for expansion the Corps land affords. The Corps property is 156 acres, more than double that in Burns Bottom. 

 

"That amount of land gives you future flexibility," says Mackay. I can see so much potential with that property. I can see bike trails, walking trails. Moms could walk while their kids practice." 

 

Mackay says the Graham property near the intersection of Highways 82 and 45S actually offers the lowest cost. Little if any landfill would be required, nor would there be wetlands mitigation as at the other two sites. 

 

Main Street Columbus has been conspicuously quiet about the Burns Bottom choice, though members and those associated with the organization have privately expressed concerns that the location is too close to downtown. Main Street receives funding from the city and county; perhaps that explains the silence. (Mayor Robert Smith supports the Burns Bottom scenario.) 

 

Both the Corps land and Burns Bottom are remarkable natural areas virtually in the center of town. It would behoove us to make well considered decisions about both of them. 

 

In the first three days of September Main Street Mississippi will sponsor a planning charrette here. Those visioning exercises guided by planning experts will offer a valuable planning opportunity for Columbus. We''ve talked about a sportsplex for at least eight years, why not cool our heels for another few months? Perhaps someone from Main Street could explain that process at Wednesday''s meeting. 

 

One night last week my daughter and I were walking in the rain in the vicinity of the Riverwalk. It''s rare that I can get her on the Riverwalk as she prefers the unexpected surprises of the streets. 

 

We were walking along the road that parallels the Riverwalk under a majestic canopy of oak and sweetgum; the frogs were croaking and the scent of mimosa was in the air. "Why does anyone want to cut these trees?" she asked. "It''s crazy." 

 

 

 

Billy''s last ride 

 

If you''re ever at a funeral and they''re asking those in attendance to share their stories about the deceased and you have one, do it. Just go up there and do it. Five or so years ago, at the funeral of the father of a college friend, I didn''t and have regretted it ever since. 

 

So Thursday afternoon when Tony Proctor asked for reminiscences about Billy Thompson, it was without hesitation that I walked up to the mic and shared mine. Billy was 96, and there is no end to the stories that could be told about him. Fittingly, the funeral was held in Billy''s front yard on Holly Hills Road, the site of his annual birthday celebrations. 

 

Billy loved horses and mules and the wagons they pulled. He developed that love early in life as evidenced by a picture on display that could have been a publicity still from the Little Rascals. Billy, another boy and three girls holding puppies are posing for the photographer in front of the Elks Club. Wearing a clean white shirt, tie and ivy cap, Billy and his crew are posing behind a goat and dog hitched to a small wagon. 

 

Fast forward about 70 years. As part of a PTA fundraiser at Demonstration School about 20 years ago, I was charged with persuading Billy to give horse and buggy rides. It was an easy sell. I don''t remember how, but we brought a horse and buggy across town for the event. Billy hitched up the horses and began making circuits nonstop around the big playground behind the school. The kids (and their parents) couldn''t get enough. 

 

After a couple of hours and thinking he might be in need of refreshment, I took him water. Billy was on the wane. "Are we halfway through, yet?" he asked. 

 

"Yea," I said, laughing, "we''re about done." 

 

From the front-yard funeral, Billy''s coffin was taken by hearse to the gates of Friendship Cemetery. There the coffin was transferred to a horse-drawn wagon for the ride to its final resting site. 

 

Rest easy, Billy. And thanks for all the rides. 

 

Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at birney@cdispatch.com.

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.