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Guild facility should boost cultural tourism opportunities

RIDGELAND — The Mississippi Craftsman’s Guild received news in mid-August that its new facility would receive an additional $1.5 million federal subsidy from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, bringing the total funding to $7.1 million for the artists’ new building.

The more than 21,000-square-foot exhibit hall, meeting area and administrative office complex is a long-term goal for the guild’s executive director, Kit Davis Barksdale, who spearheaded the initiative to build during her previous tenure with the organization.

The building project received $4 million in state funding in 1997, while the U.S. Department of Transportation contributed an additional $1.6 million in 1999. But when the bids were opened in mid-July of this year, the guild discovered that the lowest bid was 60% more than the original $5.6 million budget, according to Barksdale.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall had been instrumental in passing the original funding as chair of the senate appropriations committee — and Barksdale said his involvement was crucial in securing the additional funding needed now.

“Dick Hall and other members of the DOT went looking for additional enhancement funds,” said Barksdale.

Enhancement funds are those allotted to the states by the federal government to be used for economic development projects, said Hall. Examples of other projects that received DOT enhancement funds are the new Jackson rail depot and the bicycle and walking trails at the Ross Barnett Reservoir.

The additional $1.5 million awarded in August was reallocated from grants awarded previously to other projects around the state that never got off the ground, according to Hall.

The site sits at the intersection of Rice Road and the Natchez Trace behind the Old Trace Park — giving it great visibility to tourist and commuters.

“Because of the financial aid from the transportation commission, this building will transform the Craftsmen’s Guild from a regional crafts organization to a major economic development tool in this area,” Barksdale said.

The state will own the facility and lease it to the guild, which will be responsible for its operation.

Barksdale cited similar complexes in North Carolina and other states that draw regional tourism.

“They are a great economic stimulus in a number of ways — they bring in tourism, they allow the creative people to support themselves, and they create jobs beyond just the facility,” she said.

Hall said that in 1999, the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, now called the Mississippi Development Authority, estimated the center should see at least 100,000 visitors annually — a number he sees now as a serious underestimate.

“We believe that figure will be substantially higher, which equates to millions of dollars in lodging and goods and services,” Hall said.

Architect Larry Albert of Albert and Associates of Hattiesburg was selected to make the guild’s plans a reality. The steering committee, chaired by Jack Herring, began working to finalize the plans for the site behind Old Trace Park in Ridgeland after the legislative appropriation was passed.

“The plan for the building would be for us to showcase the guild to Mississippians and people from other places as well,” said Herring, a member of the guild and a woodcarver based in Jackson. “It’s a building that’s been well-thought out and planned for at least the past 10 years.”

Although he’s been involved in award-winning projects throughout his career, Albert wasn’t hired just for his proven architectural skills, according to Herring. “One of the reasons we selected Larry Albert was that he was a very artistic person.”

Albert’s plans call for features such as a two-story glass display case in the entry and a massive fireplace dominating the guild hall meeting area. Practical considerations to accommodate all of the guild’s programs include space for demonstrations, classrooms for instruction, a library for research, attached blacksmith and woodworking shops, a centralized reception area and display spaces for both current members’ work and artifacts in the guild’s collection, said Herring.

“I told all the construction and building people I was working with to think of a fellowship hall,” Albert said of the design.

Albert has also been appreciative of the artistic sensibilities of guild members and their dedication to promoting Mississippi materials. The bid specs call for as much native material as the budget will allow, even going so far as to allow the guild responsibility to construct certain areas of the center and specifying the use of a particular grade and variety of stone quarried exclusively in Tishomingo County, according to Herring.

“It’s the only stone in Mississippi for commercial-grade work,” Herring said of the product, locally known as highland church sandstone. “It is the same exact stone you see on most CCC state camps in the state parks.”

Two areas in particular — the front reception desk and a massive stained-glass window — are the sole province of guild members themselves, who will collaborate on the two projects during construction. Andy Young of Pearl River Glass will coordinate the assembly of the stained-glass project, which Fletcher Cox of Jackson plans to work with the woodcarvers on the front desk. “They are very good in their field, and they know contractor’s lingo,” said Herring of the two artists coordinating the projects.

Cox said that preliminary ideas from those participating in the desk carving include using exclusively Mississippi-grown woods — walnut, cherry and orange osage — and keeping some wood elements in their natural state as much as possible.

“You’ll be able to see branch and tree forms in the project,” Cox said. “The Craftsman’s Guild members feel lucky that they’ll be able to contribute to their own building.”

And Albert said he felt lucky to be chosen to work on the building from the beginning. “Everyone that knew me knew I have enjoyed working on this design more than any other design project I’ve been involved in to date.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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