Jackson – Fifteen thousand vehicles a day travel down Fortification Street in Jackson, an exit off Interstate 55 that`s just a few blocks from the Capital City`s downtown district.
What was once no more than a gravel road with a lake at the end is now a rolling, four-lane thoroughfare that divides two of the city`s historic neighborhoods and intersects a third historic district. Many living in the neighborhoods say that for years the busy artery has been a threat to the lifeblood of their community. However, these same people also believe the street could be their neighborhoods’ potential savior.
“Fortification Street is the spine of Greater Belhaven, but it has become the ugly bypass in a small town,” said Virgi Lindsay, executive director of the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation (GBNF), which represents Belhaven and Belhaven Heights, the communities to the north and south of the portion of the street between I-55 and North State Street. “If we don`t take some action to improve it, if we don`t reclaim our street, we won`t be able to bridge the gap between Belhaven and Belhaven Heights, or bring back our small neighborhood feel.”
When Lindsay and other neighborhood activists learned that the city had funds earmarked for improvements to Fortification Street, they went to Mayor Harvey Johnson and told him the neighborhoods wanted a say in how that money was spent. It was an unusual request, but one that was well received.
“We invited representatives from Belhaven, Belhaven Heights, Mid-Town, the Farish Street Historical District, Mississippi Baptist Medical Center and several others to meet with us and listen to the presentations from several engineering firms,” said Dan Gaillet, engineering manager with the City of Jackson. “This citizen-group actually helped us select the engineer that they felt would represent what they were trying to achieve. We had not done that before, but we felt it was that important to them.”
Since that time, Gaillet says the group has been working shoulder-to-shoulder with the city and the engineering firms of CiViLTech Inc. and Neel-Schaffer.
“Part of the reason for that is we wanted to show them the process that the city has to go through in designing a road, but also we wanted to listen to their ideas and concerns so that once we do get to the point where we start turning dirt out there, everyone will be very much aware of what is going on and why we are doing it.”
Currently, the multi-million-dollar, multi-year project, which will stretch from I-55 to Farish Street, is in the early stages, with conceptual planning and environmental studies underway. That should wrap up within a couple of months, said Gaillet. At that point, the engineers will begin preliminary designs for the city and others to review and comment on. Following that, the project will move into the final design phase.
“We are hoping to begin construction no later than early 2006, maybe sooner,” said Eric Dickerson, project engineer with CiViLTech, the lead engineering firm. “It will probably be complete about the middle of 2007.”
Although no design has been approved, Lindsay and the GBNF have strong ideas about what they envision the redesign accomplishing and conceptual drawings of what the finished project could look like.
“My overall dream for Greater Belhaven is that we have a place where we can all gather and shop and have a true urban neighborhood feel,” she said. “I want us to be able to walk to our fresh produce, open-air market on Saturday to buy some unusual items, then walk to the grocery store to buy what else we need and on the way home be able to stop for a latt