October 31, 2013 9:58:10 AM
Nathan Gregory - email@example.com
A committee of city and county officials formed earlier this year to discuss development possibilities for the Island wants to bring the Golden Triangle Development Link to the table.
Committee organizer Leroy Brooks started the group after conversations with Tony Carley, who owns Island property. Brooks said if the committee can gain the economic development group's interest, the process to bring change to the area would likely be facilitated.
The Island sits on the side of the newly restored Tennessee-Tombigbee historic bridge opposite downtown.
Link CEO Joe Max Higgins could not be reached for comment about the committee's suggestion as of press time.
Lowndes County supervisors recently agreed to give their interest in a 4- to 7-acre property on the Island to the city of Columbus. Mayor Robert Smith, who sat in on the Island committee's Wednesday meeting, said he has enlisted the city's engineering consulting firm to survey the property and determine the boundaries of what the city now owns before placing down stakes to indicate them. Smith hopes to clear the area of overgrowth and debris. His idea was to incorporate a green space on the property but he added that he was open to other ideas.
"The main thing I want to do is just get it cleaned up in there and then we're open for whatever we can do," Smith said.
Former director of federal programs for Columbus George Irby was the first to suggest requesting the Link's services.
"They have the operation already together on resources and potential developers and clients that want to do business," Irby said. "I think if we bring them in once we get the survey, they can help prepare a packet to send to different entities...that would be interested and help promote the Island. I think since we are a beginning operation and we are brainstorming about what to do and how to do it, that would be a good first start."
County supervisor and committee member Jeff Smith agreed but emphasized the need for involvement from the general public.
"I agree the Link needs to be at the table because of what they bring with them," Smith said. "More importantly, if we press forward, I think we need to put some type of overture to the public to respond... and take some suggestions on how to develop that area."
Brooks backed Smith on gathering public input but said the committee should meet once with the Link and the crews should be done clearing out the city-owned property before setting a hearing date.
"A public hearing will give even the critics a chance to come and voice whatever they have," Brooks said.
In previous meetings the committee had thrown around ideas including a small-scale amusement park. City planner Christina Berry said the group should be deliberate if the Link agrees to assist and consider the options the economic development group brings after it engages potential developers as well as landowners and what they would like to see.
"In our last meeting we talked about developing a master plan for the Island, laying out what we think good uses were so if a developer comes in, they have a holistic view of what the county or city is going to do going forward," Berry said. "I think that will also give us some direction with who we want to target. The Link can issue a (request for proposal) as well as the city or county can issue a RFP for a developer to solicit their ideas. You'll have to give whoever wants to develop some idea of what you want to see out there. If you have property out there, you may not want to see XYZ type of use being out there because it might affect your property values."
Feasibility based on existing infrastructure should also be considered, she said.
"If we're only looking at doing a park out there, then there may not be a lot of financial need for different infrastructure or things like that, but if you're wanting to get a developer involved to do a carousel or something where people are going to come in, then you want to look at your investments for either your highways and making sure your water and sewer are out there," she said. "If we do an amusement park, that's generating traffic...but if we just do a green space, you won't have to do any improvements to that. Eventually I think it's going to come down to those private dollars...as well as whatever the city or county can do to support that. I think you can play that game either which way you want to. You can go forward with a master plan for your ideals and see if a developer wants to develop it, or you can get the developer's ideal and see if those are the ideals you want to implement."
Brooks said the key will be the ability to acquire more property in addition to what the county deeded to the city.
"We keep talking about the 4 to 7 acres," he said. "That's just a front door. We're talking about the possibilities of everything across there. When you're going straight down, the property on the right is better looking property. It's clean on that side. When we start talking about developing, we're talking about beyond the 7 acres."
"You have to be realistic as to how far west you can even go with development," Irby replied. "Some of it would not even be even in the realm of thinking because of what it would cost to retrofit that land for something that could be usable."
Brooks agreed that anything beyond what the city owns becomes a discussion between property owners and developers.
The committee also agreed to set regular meetings for every other Wednesday, twice a month. The 9 a.m. meetings will be at the board of supervisors meeting room in the Lowndes County Courthouse. The committee previously met at the request of Brooks and based on the availability of each member. No developers were present Wednesday. Maria Dunser, who owns property on the Island with her husband, joined the committee's discussion.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.