JACKSON — Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, who announced November 21 that he will be returning to the private sector at the end of the year, remembers what he told Gov. Haley Barbour when he was appointed to his current position in 2001.
“I told the governor I considered the LeFleur Lakes project the No. 1 economic development project (in the state). I still feel that way,” said Speed.
He explained: “Water is magic. You see what San Antonio (Texas) was able to do when it concreted the downtown. This (LeFleur Lakes) will completely change the character of the metro area.”
Speed believes “drastic changes” being discussed for the plan need to be justified. “I am not convinced the changes are appropriate.” He is also a member of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District.
Jackson businessman John McGowan conceived the LeFleur Lakes project originally known as Two Lakes a decade ago. In April 1979, more than 2,700 homes and businesses were destroyed and over 15,000 citizens were evacuated from their homes when the Pearl River flooded. In 1979 dollars, damage was estimated at more than $233 million. If the 1979 flood were to occur today, damages to homes and businesses would be estimated at $1.1 billion, according to a briefing paper issued in November by the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District.
McGowan’s interest in flood control evolved from land he owned at the end of Meadowbrook Road in the flood plain. There were ordinances to prevent building there, said McGowan. “We designed a lake system (to handle flooding). We realized that it would work for the whole city. It’s the right way to stop flooding,” he said.
Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1979 to study flood control on the Pearl River. With the 1980s Shoccoe Dry Dam and the Corps 1996 levee plan, there was no local sponsor willing to share the cost of implementation. The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District agreed to serve as local sponsor of McGowan’s plan.
In conceptualizing his plan, McGowan noted there were three problems to solve. The first was a direct highway connection from downtown Jackson to the Jackson-Evers International Airport. The second was control of Pearl River flooding in metropolitan Jackson and the third involved revitalization of a declining downtown economy.
Possible solutions to the problems include the airport parkway, a proposed $425-million project that includes a highway connector interchange over the Pearl River floodplain and highways through Rankin County to Flowood and Pearl.
McGowan’s proposal includes building three four-lane bridges and highways across the river at High Street, Pearl Street and Fortification Street. They would be connected by a full interchange with a high-speed expressway over Highway 468 in Rankin County.
“I’ve been saying it could be beneficial. It has tremendous potential. It would make an enormous economic impact,” said businessman Malcolm White.
White said putting an accessible waterfront in downtown Jackson (as called for in McGowan’s plan) would make the area “vibrant” and “alive.” But, he has questions. White said he doesn’t know if anybody is in charge of answering questions yet. “What about the environment? What do we lose? What do we gain? Where are we on the environment.”
“From my understanding, LeFleur’s Park would lose the nature trail and the campground,” said White, who is executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission.
White said, “Somebody is going to have to address the environmental issues. If environmentalists oppose it, there’s going to be a long and hard fight.”
Ben Allen, president of the Jackson City Council and Ward 1 councilman, also sees the economic benefits. “It is an economic development tool that will dwarf Nissan. It is the single most important economic development tool that Mississippi will see and it should be done in Mississippi. If we miss this chance, we’re foolish. It’s the most important thing in our lifetime. It will change the economic scope forever,” said Allen.
Allen said if it becomes a reality, LeFleur Lakes would be developed similar in scope to Lake Austin in Texas.
“The prospect of the LeFleur Lakes flood control project becoming a reality has never been greater than today. It’s the first time since the vision of the project that the Army Corps of Engineers has publicly determined the project will provide flood control in the metro Jackson area,” said Billy Orr, president, Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, Pearl River Watershed.
In a statement, Orr noted that the mandatory and environmental review process is about to be completed. “The project has the support of the flood district, which is the local sponsor, comprised of each of the government entities that are directly impacted by the project,” he said.
He said, “The project has also gained the support of local, state and national officials and business people including the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, state economic development officials and the Mississippi congressional delegation.”
Going through the process
Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, who is on the board with Orr and the Airport Parkway Commission, called LeFleur Lakes “a good project if we go through the process to make it happen.”
“Right now, the LeFleur Lakes project is a concept. We can’t go from A to C and bypass B. The first thing to even make it happen is to take care of the environmental issues. That’s where we’re at right now. In the next 60 days, the draft impact study should be done,” said Rhoads, who is also president of the Airport Parkway Commission.
Jackson businessman Con Maloney is the Hinds County representative to the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. He said in a statement that the prospect of the LeFleur Lakes flood control project becoming a reality has never been greater.
Maloney said McGowan, an entrepreneur and geologist, is to be commended for “his vision, perserverance and for most recently the Corps of Engineers confirmation earlier this year of his idea that flood control and economic development can compliment one another.”
“That’s why we at the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, made up of representatives of each of the cities directly impacted by the project as well as both Rankin and Hinds counties, stepped up three years ago to be the federally required local partner,” said Maloney.
Maloney said the district has worked closely with the Corps of Engineers to evaluate the concept and update the 1996 levee plan. “We and the Corps have committed time, staff and over $2 million to update the project, so far,” he said.
“Clearly, a project of this magnitude requires a community consensus. Lately, there have been some suggestions in some area media by supporters of this project that the Airport Parkway project and the Lefleur Lakes projects are mutually exclusive — that one would doom the success of the other.
“Not being directly involved in the Airport Parkway project, it is our understanding that it is a federally authorized and funded transportation corridor. We see no direct correlation in the parkway and the construction of the LeFleur Lakes project,” said Maloney.
Maloney said other differences will surely emerge in the coming weeks. “But this project, while born of a single person’s dream is now the collective property of all of us. This will have to be a consensus project, and a project that works within the constraints of the political realities, and the federal environmental guidelines, as well as one that can attract funding from both public and private sources,” he said.
Achieving the dream
“How ironic it will be if we look back in 10 years and see that our dreams died, not because of opposition, but because the most passionate supporters couldn’t reach a consensus on how to work within those constraints and still achieve the dream,” said Maloney.
Bill McDonald, an engineer with Waggoner Engineering, one of three engineering firms in the Mississippi Engineering Group, a consortium involved with the project, said, “We have a great deal of respect for John McGowan. He has a brilliant idea.”
“The process taking place right now is a high altitude, very conceptual planning process. The court has stated the project is feasible and that it will provide requisite benefits,” said McDonald.
McDonald said the study includes a feasibility part, which looks at physical components to ensure flood control will be provided. The second part will determine any impact to the environment.
The study costs $2.8 million and began about two years ago. Gary Walker, overall project manager for the study, said, “It remains to be seen how the project will proceed.”
“It could become a non-federal project or a federal flood control project or it could cease. We have made some modifications to make the plan work. It still has two lakes,” said Walker.
Changes to the plan bother McGowan and Robert Muller, a consulting engineer, who was hired by McGowan to work on the project. “As far as we can tell, it doesn’t provide the flood benefits of the original design. They’ve deconstructed the plan making it unfeasible,” said Muller.
Muller said one feature making the plan unfeasible is a system of levees that he claims would be too expensive to build when considering the cost of the property being protected.
Integral issue: the island
Another feature in the original plan that Muller and McGowan consider an issue is the island in the middle of the lakes.
He noted in the original plan the island is located directly across from downtown Jackson, a site chosen for economic development reasons and because of the realities of the river’s geography.
Muller said the island has been shifted approximately one mile to the north. There is another problem aside from moving the island away from the downtown area, according to Muller.
“The island as they’ve designed it requires filling in the deep area of the river channel and excavating the shallower neighboring flood plain,” said Muller.
He said this will significantly increase the cost of building the island.
According to Muller, the only access to the island as he has seen in the most current rendering of the project would be from off Lakeland Drive with no direct access from downtown.
But, said McDonald, “nothing has been designed at this point.” He noted McGowan’s ideas could be incorporated into the design of the project in the future.
Meanwhile, McGowan wants to take his project to the people. He plans to present the results to the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. “I’d like to see other groups take this project over,” said McGowan.
To vote online, visit www.twolake.com.