VICKSBURG — A few years ago one of the biggest barriers to redeveloping downtown here was a lack of faith. Today, upper level apartments are becoming very popular, a new $12-million river museum is being constructed, and the city is investing millions to renovate the downtown making it more attractive for tourists and residents alike.
Vicksburg Mayor Pro Tem Gertrude Young said the city recently started on $3 million worth of redevelopment to enhance the downtown. Projects include attractive walkways and gardens stretching from the site of the new museum to the railroad depot, including numerous water gardens along the Jackson Street promenade. An art park is planned near the artistic murals that decorate the seawall. A water park will include an exhibition from an old steamboat and fountain sprays and play equipment for children.
The city already has considerable water tourism with four Mississippi River steamboats using Vicksburg as a port. The new developments in the downtown waterfront area are designed to enhance the tourism experience.
“We’re trying to bring in more tourists, but also attract our citizens to the downtown area to continue the revitalization and urban renewal in that area,” Young said.
The waterfront is already a popular spot for visiting paddlewheel steamboats, fishing, boating, sight-seeing and water skiing. A casino boat, Harrah’s, is located in the area. And local industries including International Paper (IP), Calsonic, Ergon and Coca-Cola have donated funds to decorate the seawalls with murals by internationally acclaimed artist Robert Dafford. A ribbon cutting was held recently for the IP mural depicting a visit by Teddy Roosevelt. The City of Vicksburg also contracted for one of the murals.
Young said overall urban renewal projects worth about $17.5 million are underway in Vicksburg. Projects include the city buying old, dilapidated buildings in the downtown Washington Street area, which are then renovated and given to businesses with a viable business plan.
“We also have a seven-year tax abatement, plus tax credit incentives along with our Main Street grants,” Young said. “And it is working. People at first couldn’t believe it. Now they are buying into it. We are also encouraging downtown residency, and more downtown buildings have rentals upstairs. Some of these are going for $700 to $1,000 per month rent.”
Plans and specifications for a $12-million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) lower Mississippi River museum and interpretive center, located on the corner of Washington and Jackson streets, are expected to be complete this summer.
Michael Logue, spokesman for the COE, said the river vessel Mississippi, a large towboat, will be placed on land next to the museum for tours.
“It is a substantial boat,” Logue said. “Touring it should be a pretty dramatic experience. It will be one of the few places a visitor can actually walk onto a large Mississippi River towboat and capture that experience.”
The museum and interpretive center will also include an historic iron bridge that originally crossed a portion of the upper Mississippi River. The bridge was moved to Vicksburg early in the past century, and went across the railroad at Fairgrounds Street. The bridge will be used as a pedestrian walkway at the museum.
Lenore Barkley, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said the museum will serve as an anchor to downtown revitalization. Another new attraction for Vicksburg is Mississippi River Tours, a riverboat that will offer day-tour expeditions on the river. The city has been without a river tour boat for two years now, so the new business is very welcome.
“Previously Vicksburg was the only place between Memphis and New Orleans with a river excursion boat,” Barkley said. “You haven’t experienced the Mississippi River until you have been out on it and feel how mighty and powerful it is.”
Vicksburg had also considered opening the Old Vicksburg Bridge over the Mississippi River to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, turning the bridge into a community park such as a similar bridge in Chattanooga that is very popular with local residents and tourists. Barkley said Chattanooga’s bridge has proved to be an attraction in and of itself.
“It also has been used, and I can see ours being used, for functions like a banquet,” Barkley said. “It would be one of the more unique sites for any kind of event.”
Currently the bridge is closed to automobile traffic, but is still used for train traffic. Bobby Bailess, attorney for the Mississippi Vicksburg Bridge Commission of Warren County, said the commission got a directive from county supervisors two years ago to reopen the bridge to traffic, which obviously would kill any chance of it being a park.
“You can’t have traffic on a bridge that is already too narrow and do anything else on that bridge,” Bailess aid. “The bridge commission did not open the bridge to traffic because shortly after that we received an engineering report that said the bridge should not be open to traffic because of its narrowness, etc. Soon after that we had problems with the number two pier moving to the west and south, actually sliding. Those piers are tremendous masses of concrete. We started a process of trying to determine what caused that pier to move, and were advised by our engineering firm not to proceed to do anything with regard to opening the bridge back up until we found out what was causing that pier to move.”
Bailess said that until the issue of the structural safety of the bridge is resolved, it won’t be possible to decide what to do with the bridge, whether opening it to highway traffic, or turning it into a park.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.