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Lawmakers OK incentives for DeSoto project

JACKSON — Riverbend Crossing developers were ready to move forward after learning that Mississippi lawmakers had approved $23 million for infrastructure costs and $150 million in tax incentives over a 10-year period for their proposed DeSoto County project during a special legislative session that ended August 26.

State lawmakers also applauded the proposed nearly $3-billion development, a unique mix of entertainment, commercial, residential, recreational and industrial development whose impact has been compared to the Nissan North America assembly plant in Canton and should transform Delta cotton rows into “fields of gold.” With demographics showing a population of 51 million within a 400-mile radius of the site, conservative projections show that 3.5 million visitors will pass through Riverbend’s entertainment district annually.

“We’re enthusiastic and pleased with the Legislature’s embrace of the economic development potential this project will bring for not only Northwest Mississippi, but also for the entire state,” said Jim Flanagan, president of the DeSoto County Economic Development Council, who credited Sen. Doug Davis (R-Hernando) and Rep. John Mayo (D-Clarksdale) for ushering the project through the political process. “This master-planned community will provide not only regional recognition, but also national recognition with the tourism and commercial components, coupled with its unique architectural style.”

In the works

The proposed 4,500-acre development has been in the works for several years, since executives at the privately held Phillips Development Co., eyed the possibilities for the prime real estate. U.S. Highway 61, the Tunica-DeSoto county line and Star Landing Road border the Riverbend project, which includes nearly five miles of frontage along the Mississippi River and is near the planned Interstate 69.

“With the infrastructure improvements to U.S. 61 and what I-69 will bring, it just became a natural target for investors to express interest and develop a game plan,” said Flanagan.

A group of savvy Arkansas investors saw the site’s potential in 1999 and contacted Chris Gouras Jr., a public finance consultant with Gouras & Associates, asking for help on developing the site, then only 2,100 acres. They optioned the land with plans to develop a master-planned community on a smaller scale but ran into difficulties after spending some $2 million.

In 2001, the group contacted Bill Phillips, president of Phillips Development, to collaborate on the project but he was heavily involved in other developments. The Newport Beach, Calif.-based company had on its roster the development of upscale master planned communities including The Woodlands in Texas and Talega Valley, Rancho Santa Margarita and Monarch Beach in Orange County, Calif., and had helped develop Disneyland Paris.

By the time Phillips turned his attention to the North Mississippi site, the group had lost the property options. Intrigued, he flew to the area and saw “things others didn’t see,” he explained. “Four and a half miles of riverfront, 17 miles south of Memphis on the river, a freeway coming in straight from the airport, and the Tunica gaming center, with 12 million visitors a year. Location, location, location. It has everything in the world going for it.”

After gaining control of the land and adding several adjacent parcels, Phillips fast-tracked the project. “We’re taking everything we’ve learned in the last 30 years and rolling it into this one,” he said.

Riverbend will consist of a 200-acre MGM entertainment district including three hotels, four golf courses and a 600-acre lake. The planned residential community, which Mississippi Development Authority spokesperson Scott Hamilton has described as “creating a new city,” will feature 6,750 single-family homes ranging in price from $175,000 to $1 million and 2,750 multi-family housing units.

A 300-acre technology park will highlight the development.
The development would create 3,500 jobs within the first three years, and nearly 13,000 jobs — the same number employed at Tunica County’s nine casinos — when it is completed in 12 to 15 years.

Seeing a commitment

“One thing that’s always encouraging to a developer is the commitment we see on the part of the city and county and now the state,” said Phillips. “That’s a very strong commitment because this isn’t a two-year project. It’s a long-term project and you’ve got to have support to make it through.”

Riverbend’s $475-million, 1,900-acre phase one will consist of the MGM entertainment district featuring clubs that Phillips describes as “Beale Street South,” three hotels, two golf courses and 600 to 800 single-family homes surrounding the centerpiece lake. It should be operational by December 1, 2008.

In the legislation passed by state lawmakers in the special session, a provision was included to prohibit Riverbend developers from adding a casino if DeSoto County residents approve gaming.

“First and foremost, I don’t think DeSoto County will vote for gaming any time in the near future,” said Sen. Doug Davis, a native of Memphis who resides in Hernando and serves as assistant vice president at First Security Bank. “It was a good amendment, and if I’d thought about it, I would have probably suggested it myself. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re trying to back door a casino in the county. There are people who, if gaming had been attached, wouldn’t have voted for the project. If adding that amendment made people feel more secure, then I have no problem with it. I’m happy for the state and optimistic the project will turn out the way we all want.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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