January 30, 2010 11:32:00 PM
Northeast Mississippi''s and West Alabama''s latest historical, educational and cultural attraction could open to the public by this fall.
And it''s a fitting tribute to the 25th anniversary of not only one of the region''s most important tourism and economic development assets but also the nation''s largest-ever water resources project.
"After years of planning, discussions and vision, it''s exciting to see work actually under way on a museum we think will add to the extraordinary historical and education opportunities in East Mississippi and West Alabama," said Agnes Zaiontz, director of the new Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Transportation Museum under construction on Seventh Street North in Columbus.
The museum will be the latest tribute to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which winds through four states connecting the Tennessee River in Northeast Mississippi, Northwest Alabama and Central Tennessee and Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico through East Mississippi and West Alabama.
JBM Inc. is the contractor for the project, which is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and the state of Mississippi Department of Transportation, and $200,000 in private donations. Tax-deductible donations are still needed to expand the museum''s reach.
The first phase is renovating the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority offices in the agency''s current building. Contractors then will convert the remainder of the building into the 2,000-square-foot museum.
The construction coincides with the June 1, 2010 opening of a time capsule buried in June 1985 when the waterway opened after 12 years of construction. That ceremony is being planned.
Cultural, educational asset
Located adjacent to the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and the Stephen D. Lee Home, the museum is centrally located for tourists, local residents and schools.
"The Lee Home already houses an outstanding collection of furniture and art that are representative of Columbus'' long and diverse history. The library has one of the area''s best genealogical and local history records collections anywhere. The waterway museum is a natural addition to the city''s attractions," said James Tsismanakis, director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the museum board.
"We look forward to promoting the Tenn-Tom Museum to new and potential businesses. People who look at Columbus and Lowndes County are looking for more than just land and labor, they are looking for quality of life, cultural assets and attractions that help them understand and be a part of the community. The museum will be one of those assets," noted Melissa Cook, vice president for chamber affairs for the Columbus Lowndes Development Link.
Construction will take about four months and then exhibits will be installed. The Waterway Authority hopes to formally open the museum in September or October.
Exhibits will include the long history of the 234-mile waterway, dating back to the 1750s, models and drawings of early steamboats and other vessels that traveled the river, the connection the waterway provides, archaeological and environmental displays, and current tourism and economic development activities.
Interactive videos, drawings, pictures and computer models will explain locks and dams, detail the river''s history and explain how the waterway interacts with animal and plant life. The museum will provide a treasure trove of information for students and history buffs. Online access will give researchers around the world information at the click of a button.
When it opened, the $2 billion waterway was the nation''s largest water resources project, requiring more dirt to be moved than the Panama Canal. Its unique recreational and natural attractions are a mecca for water enthusiasts, hunters and fishermen, pumping millions of dollars into local economies.
In the last decade, a growing number of industries have been attracted to the Tenn-Tom as an inexpensive transportation route between the population centers in the Midwest and South and Gulf of Mexico and ultimately to global markets in South and Central America.
Today, the Tenn-Tom has a $42.52 billion impact on the region''s economy and directly has created 29,191 jobs in the last decade, according to a study completed last year by Troy University.
Grain, gravel, sand and timber that once were the mainstays of barge traffic are now joined by steel, scrap iron and other products as new industries bring new jobs and investment to the areas served by the waterway.
The new museum will join a network of similar facilities in and along the Tenn-Tom corridor that include the River Heritage Museum in Paducah, the Tennessee River Museum in Savannah, Tenn., the Whitten Visitors'' Center in Fulton, the Amory Regional Museum in Amory, the Bevill Visitors'' Center in Pickensville, Ala., the Old Courthouse Museum in St. Stephens, Ala., and the Nautical Maritime Museum in Mobile.
"In addition to being a resource for residents and area schools, being part of the museum network will draw hundreds of tourists to Columbus. The benefits those visitors bring to the community can''t be overlooked. It will be a great addition to the downtown area," said Amber Brislin, director of Main Street Columbus, the downtown redevelopment agency.
"This has been a dream of so many people for many, many years. To know that it is about to be a reality makes us all the more grateful to the people who have donated to the effort and continue to support the museum''s goal," concluded Zaiontz