YAZOO CITY — As travelers enter Yazoo City from the east, the kudzu-covered, steep ravines give a flavor akin to the hills of northeast Mississippi. But suddenly the precipice is reached and one literally plunges into the Delta. And it is here in the flatlands that Yazoo City’s true character is revealed — it is a Delta town.
“We are the ‘Gateway to the Delta’,” said Glo Baker of the Yazoo City Chamber of Commerce. “It’s like crossing into a different world.”
It’s good that the city has experience in transition, because some big changes are afoot for the city and county. These include annexation plans, new construction at the federal correctional facility near Yazoo City, continued efforts to build historical tourism and taking advantage of potential new visitors drawn from an upcoming movie on the area and continued work force development.
Yazoo County is truly a rural area. Yazoo City is the only community in the county of any appreciable size, the 1995 population being 12,059. But that was then.
Since around 1995, Yazoo City has been looking into annexation. After a lengthy feasibility study and other preliminaries, the city is on the brink of putting plan into action.
The Board of Aldermen recently adopted and voted in a proposal to annex an area east of Yazoo City, toward Mississippi 16 which runs between U.S. 49 and Interstate 55. If enacted, the annexation will essentially double the area of Yazoo City.
“The annexation is needed because we have run out of space to grow,” said Yazoo City Mayor Wardell Leach, who as former alderman and current mayor has been working on the annexation project since its inception. “We have a real shortage of affordable housing in the city, and nowhere to build. My vision for Yazoo City is to make it the most livable city in the U.S., to improve the quality of life for all our citizens. We have that potential. And the annexation is crucial to our development.”
Leach said the proposal has been published, and the next step in the process is to get judicial approval. With an okay from the courts, the city will then put the matter before the people and give them an opportunity to react and explore the pros and cons of the issue. Leach said there is practically no way to predict the time frame for ultimate approval, but added it “could come quickly.”
More growth is also going on at the Federal Correctional Facility-Yazoo City. The low-security facility was opened in 1997, currently employing about 290 people and with a capacity for 1,536 prisoners.
Plans have been designed and approved and bids ready for letting on a new prison camp that will be separate but adjacent to the main facility. According to Elliott Caggins, executive assistant to the warden, the camp is expected to be complete before May of this year.
The prison camp is the lowest security level in the federal system. With no fences, the camp will house inmates with no violent behavior and little or no prison history on their record. It will hold 125 beds, and Caggins said, though the exact figure has not been firmly determined, will employ between 10-12 people.
The correctional facility has even larger plans in the works. A second phase on the prison proper is being studied. Details on it are at present sketchy, but Caggins said it could be completed as early as 2002, and would cost about $90 million.
Cultural and historical tourism has long been a strong suit for the area. Native American mounds have been dated back to as early as 1500 B.C., and a road connecting Yazoo City with Vicksburg was in use in the 1820s. During the Civil War, Yazoo City was an important ship-building site, and Casey Jones’ famous wreck in 1900 occurred in Vaughan in rural Yazoo County.
The town burned in 1904 and was almost totally rebuilt. Thus, to go along with all the other historical offerings, Yazoo City today offers more residential and commercial areas on the register of historical places in one place, from one time, than any other in the entire U.S. The Yazoo Historical District has been a draw for tourists for years, and walking tours are available.
The city is looking for a new influx of visitors with the upcoming release of “My Dog Skip,” a film based on the work by late Yazoo City native son and author Willie Morris of his boyhood days. However, it may surprise some to find that Yazoo City has been offering a “My Dog Skip” tour for years now, highlighting those areas mentioned in the book. Baker said that the area is gearing up for even more Morris fans after the movie is released this spring.
For all the changes and plans for growth, Yazoo County still maintains certain assets. One is transportation access by water (Yazoo River), road (U.S. 49, Mississippi 16, Mississippi 3) and rail (Illinois Central Railroad). And its close proximity to Jackson and Vicksburg are other pluses.
But for Charles Henry Shelton, general manager of Yazoo Valley Electric Power Association and current chairman of the board of the Yazoo Chamber of Commerce, the most important asset is not inanimate.
“The people are our strength,” Shelton said. “We have good people, and a good work force.”
Shelton said his goal was to really put a lot of emphasis on work force development. While he reiterated that the area’s work force was a strength, he was dedicated to improving it.
“Yes, we’re the ‘Gateway to the Delta’, we have excellent railroad access, we have various industries utilizing the river, we have a great locale. But the thing that everyone is focused on, not just businesses, is work force training. That is the key to our future. Without it, (future growth) just isn’t going to happen,” Shelton said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.