May 25, 2013 10:57:32 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
There has been much talk over the years about what kind of economic development projects could be lured to the Island, but so far, no one has been able to come to agreement. Now, the Island's future is on the table again, with the formation of an ad hoc committee to explore options for the once-popular property.
The Columbus City Council voted Tuesday night on a resolution to have Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem serve on the committee. The area is in Taylor's ward and abuts the southwest portion of Karriem's.
No others have yet been recommended to join the committee, but the topic was brought up by Lowndes County District 1 Supervisor Leroy Brooks at the supervisors' May 15 meeting.
Created by the dredging of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the 1970s, the nearly-800 acre stretch of land was once an industrial and commercial hub for Columbus, but the opening of a new bypass to Highway 82 caused development to decline as businesses relocated for better accessibility.
With restoration underway on the old Highway 82 bridge spanning the waterway, interest in the area has resurged. The bridge, located near the Columbus Riverwalk, will be turned into a pedestrian walkway, connecting downtown Columbus with the Island. The construction and renovation is slated for completion in June.
Bridge to nowhere?
The $2.5 million bridge project, which was funded jointly by the city, county, Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau and a grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, began last year. Karriem and Brooks both said conversations with city and county residents about the bridge have yielded mixed emotions.
"Development of the Island was something discussed during the previous administration, but talks became intense when the bridge (renovation) was put in place," Karriem said. "I've heard a lot of comments around town about spending millions on a bridge to nowhere, but that's not the case. I think the best thing to do is get people who have skin in the game -- property owners across the river, local leaders and developers -- to come up with a game plan."
"Some people have been glad about the bridge project and some have been critical." Brooks said. "Right now it may be a bridge to nowhere, but it doesn't have to be ... We need to bring property owners to the table and focus on what direction we need to go."
Stuart Phillips, who owns property in the area, is in favor of revamping the bridge, saying it is a Columbus landmark.
"I don't agree with the bridge-to-nowhere concept, and I correct people when they say that," Phillips said. "The Eiffel Tower doesn't go anywhere and people go to see it. It is the destination. With us, the bridge is the destination. It doesn't have to lead to anywhere."
Phillips noted that he'd spoken to people who were critical of the Riverwalk project, which he believed is a success.
"I'm in favor of the bridge restoration for the same reason I was in favor of the Riverwalk," he said. "It's a quality of life project that makes Columbus more attractive. The Riverwalk turned out to be an asset the community likes. The bridge is the most recognizable landmark in Columbus other than structures at MUW (Mississippi University for Women). It symbolizes the city of Columbus itself. It was used for a long time and means different things to different people. I remember crossing that bridge a million times growing up as a kid."
Of the approximately 800 acres, Lowndes County currently only owns eight, Brooks said. The rest is private property. Meanwhile, the city has identified properties for redevelopment it would consider if it received Brownfields Grant funding.
But because the majority of the landing is private property, it poses issues for people wanting to pursue development, Phillips said.
"This whole thing has been going on since I can remember about how it could be developed," he said. "Developing the Island sounds great, but what if people who own property there aren't interested? The question is not the idea of what should be there, it's how you get the land to begin with. How are you going to make whatever is in your mind come to fruition if you don't own the land? If you don't own it, you can't develop on it."
Another potential obstacle is the limited amount of ingress and egress the area can handle due to its lack of roads.
"I think one thing we need to be cognizant of is the market we're dealing with," Columbus City Planner Christina Berry said. "The biggest question mark going forward is how to balance what the community needs and the market demands. When the highway was closed off, it limited transportation access through there. As it stands now it could be good for a residential area because ... the property is surrounded by water and that could make for a great community that has a riverfront, but we need to look at what's going on in the city. With 15 percent of houses vacant ... we need to determine if we really need new homes."
More than 'smokestacks'
Residential areas support commercial areas, Berry said, which is why residential developments might be an ideal starting point. Recreation and entertainment usage are also possibilities.
"We have to do our due diligence by looking at the numbers and the market," she said.
Other revenue-generating options could include entertainment venues, Karriem said, especially since the council's approval years ago to create entertainment districts through the Mississippi Secretary of State's Office.
"(Through that legislation), if developers come in and build venues that take tickets, they get tax credits," Karriem said. "The Island is a more culturally diverse part of town. I think having an art park across the river is something we should consider."
As for industrial development, the acreage may not lend itself for more than what is already there, which includes KiOR and Baldor, Berry said. And although Karriem feels any development that creates jobs would constitute good land use, he believes more options should be explored, with industry being lower on the totem pole in terms of priority.
"KiOR and Baldor have been very good corporate citizens for Columbus," he said. "If another industry sees land out there and thinks (locating there) is what they need, then we should (allow it), because we need to put our people to work ... but I don't think we should just have smokestacks."
The sky is the limit
Serious exploration of what to do with the area in light of its new connection to downtown is long overdue, Karriem said, and he is looking forward to getting started.
"The sky is the limit," he said. "It's just (a matter of) what Columbus and Lowndes County are willing to do and what property owners want to see across the river. I think the Island is a jewel, and once developed it could really be something if we work together. Over a period of time, if you don't develop or if you have leadership that doesn't have the vision to keep things going, it deteriorates. People move out. Things change. Right now, besides some of the homes, you have a lot of blighted area out there. Now I think Columbus has the right mindset of individuals backing the cause. It's about getting the right people in the room, finding the right resources, putting the plan together and executing it."
The next step will be finalizing the committee, which is expected to be made up of the two councilmen, along with two supervisors and three property owners, Brooks said.
One of the property owners who has expressed interest in joining the committee is Phillips, who said he would join if approached, because he wants to see future prosperity for Columbus and Lowndes County.
"I think we need to build on the momentum of the Riverwalk and the bridge and think outside the box to make Columbus a cool place for all people," Phillips said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.