MERIDIAN — When Mayor John Robert Smith and the Meridian City Council announced on Dec. 18 that Cooper Land Development would make Meridian Village their latest project, it was a new form of economic development for the area.
The $35-million project will occupy 1,314 acres in the southeastern corner of the city and is expected to attract 6,000 new residents to live in the 2,000 new homes and 1,000 new town homes. All of this is expressed in a letter of intent signed by Cooper officials and the City of Meridian.
An elated Smith said, “Among the benefits is that this is property not on the tax rolls (because it’s currently owned by the city), so you’re putting 1,300 acres of property on the tax rolls that will pay city, county and school taxes. This is the best and fastest way to grow a community I can think of — there’s no bitter annexation battle and we’ll have people from around the country seeking to be part of our home town.”
Origins of the deal started more than six years ago when Smith attended an assisted living conference with — and at the insistence of — local realtor Larry Dudley. “After that, we began seeking an upscale retirement community because we saw that some developed communities had spent fortunes to bring in water and what-passed-for trees. We had those natural assets already,” Smith said.
“We focused on Cooper because they met our criteria. They had been in this kind of business since 1955 and had developed six projects across the South. And they weren’t ‘cookie cutter’ type projects — each had distinguishing characteristics and 25% of the property was preserved as green space.”
Cooper officials had a big problem with Meridian’s proposal though. Their previous developments ranged from 3,200 acres to 36,000 acres and Meridian’s was a measly 1,314 acres. Smith persisted. When Cooper officials were making plans to visit an area near Hattiesburg for possible development, he insisted they stop in Meridian.
“We asked them to swing by here and just take a look,” Smith recalled. “They said they would, and in all fairness, I think it was just to shut me up as much as anything. Then when they saw the beauty and serenity of the property, they were hooked despite the fact it was much smaller than they had ever done.”
Cooper made at least six more visits to Meridian before the Dec. 18 announcement. On one of the last ventures, Cooper’s vice president Ernie Deaton turned to Mayor Smith and said, “Okay, where’s the toxic waste dump that we don’t know about?” Smith had to reassure him there were no unpleasant surprises. Deaton just couldn’t figure out why someone else hadn’t beat them to the property.
Deaton said in a recent phone conversation, “Meridian, and that property, met all our requirements. The city is safe and progressive. It has all of the retail goods and services, excellent medical facilities, outstanding transportation and the property is secure and attractive.”
Cooper’s recent developments prior to Meridian have been in keeping with the national trend toward smaller acreage. Their last project was Stonebridge Village, Mo., in 1993. It was their smallest — 3,200 acres. That contrasts with their largest-Bella Vista, Ark., Cooper’s home base, which was 36,326 acres begun in 1965.
All six of the previous developments are oriented toward recreation. For example, Bella Vista has eight lakes, plus a yacht club and marina, while Hot Springs Village, Ark., has seven golf courses and eleven tennis courts. Swimming pools, country clubs and hiking trails also abound in all of the projects.
Most of the golf courses were laid out by renowned golf course architect Ault, Clark and Associates and Cooper received recognition from the widely respected Nature Conservancy in 1994 for their land preservation efforts. It’s easy to understand why Mayor Smith zeroed in on them. He hasn’t been disappointed.
“From the city administration standpoint, Cooper has probably been the easiest developing firm to work with that I’ve encountered,” Smith said. “They were never adversarial. Their attitude throughout has been ‘What can we do that will be best for the city and, most important, for the people who will ultimately live there?’”
The 1,314 acres Cooper is buying lies east of Highway 45 and is known locally as Long Creek. It includes the city’s Lakeview public golf course and Long Creek Reservoir. Cooper will pay the city approximately $4.2 million, which will include funding for a new — and much improved — public course across the highway from Meridian Village. Meantime, Cooper will convert the Lakeview course into one of their championship-type layouts.
Because the new public course will be built near the Bonita Lake area, there was an outcry from the group known as “Friends of Bonita.” Lauderdale County Agent Steve Strong is part of that group. He said,
“We were just afraid that development was getting out of hand, but the mayor and council have been wonderful and they are wanting to do the right thing.”
The city will provide water and sewerage to Meridian Village and is also obligated to build an interchange on Highway 45 plus access to the frontage road. “We’re working on a number of ways to get that done,” Smith said.
The economic impact of the development will certainly be substantial. According to Hometown Retirement Mississippi, the state’s retirement recruitment agency, each of those projected 3,000 new households is the equivalent of 3.7 manufacturing jobs. Estimates are that that will translate into $60 million annually in new consumption and 1,000 new jobs. Then there’s the estimated $290 million for the construction of those new homes.
As for the future, Frank Thompson, vice president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, said they’re already getting inquiries from retailers based on the Cooper development announcement.
Cooper VP Ernie Deaton cautioned in his concluding words on the development, “We’ve come a long way and we’re impressed with the support of the local people and anticipate no problems, but there are several hurdles before this becomes reality, so I don’t want to be premature.”
The major hurdle is translating that letter of intent into a final agreement between the Cooper board of directors and the Meridian City Council, but the good will and smooth sailing so far certainly bode well for Meridian Village and the surrounding area.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com.