The proposed road is supposed to connect Mississippi Highway 7 to U.S. Highway 49, but the plan has been split into two phases because of a lack of funding. Phase I will connect Mississippi 7 to the Viking Range Corp. plant facilities in Greenwood. Phase II, which was put on hold in 2008, will connect the plant to U.S. 49.
The project has been in the works for the past eight years, and critics and supporters alike have raised concern since its inception. With things finally coming to fruition, however, more county residents are speaking up.
“The road doesn’t go anywhere,” said Steve Scott, who owns property on Mississippi 7. “It’s not going to be used by Viking, and yet the taxpayers have to pick up $1.5 million of the cost of an unnecessary road.”
The Leflore County School Board this month approved the sale of 20.1 acres of land for use as a right of way for the road to the Leflore County Board of Supervisors. County Administrator Sam Abraham said the county is in the process of securing the right of way so that construction can begin. He said he is not sure how long that process will take, however.
Scott’s property on Mississippi 7 is used mostly for hunting, he said, and he insisted that he’d “be better off keeping my mouth shut and getting money from the county.” But he said he thinks it’s a shame to see the county spend so much money on a road that no one will use.
Scott said that since Viking has moved much of its industry over to U.S. 82, the company does not use the plant that the connector road would make more accessible, on the Tallahatchie River.
More importantly, said Scott, Viking’s future in Greenwood is uncertain. He said if a road was built and Viking’s manufacturing left, the new road would never be used.
Viking was acquired in January by The Middleby Corp., a food service equipment company based in Elgin, Ill.
“It would have been a good idea five years ago, if they had had the money,” Scott said. “The way it is now, Viking is downsized and public, and I don’t really know if it’s going to be here. Everybody I’ve talked to says that Viking might not even be here a few years from now, and they want taxpayers to pay $1.5 million to build a road to it.”
That uncertainty is shared by Beverlyn Lomax Pepper, who, in a letter to the editor of the Commonwealth, said that since Viking is now a public company, it has no significant stake in the Greenwood community and could leave at any moment.
“Since the new corporation has acquired Viking, the workforce has been reduced,” Pepper said in her letter. “We must ask ourselves, how much longer will Viking Range remain in Greenwood? How soon will it be relocated to Mexico, China or other parts of our country where labor is cheaper?”
Abraham said he didn’t think that would happen.
“I don’t anticipate Viking going anywhere,” he said. “It looks like they’re getting stronger in the community.”
And the road isn’t for Viking alone, Abraham said.
“We’re trying to look at it as a bypass that will spur all kinds of growth in the future,” he said. “It will open up another whole area for commercial and residential progress.”
Scott also contends that there is already a gravel road leading to Viking and that there is no sense in building another road leading right to the river, which would be the case since funding for the overpass, as outlined in Phase II of the project, has not been allocated.
“Why are they putting in a road that’s going nowhere?” he said.
Abraham said, however, that funds will be secured for Phase II of the project if the county successfully bids projects for Phase I.
“This is a good project,” he said. “It’s a $13 million project, and the county would be out $1.3 million. We’re trying to look at it as a bypass road from Mississippi 7 to U.S. 49, independent of Viking.”
Abraham said that the bypass would also help evacuate Viking employees should a train from the nearby tracks derail.
“There’s no other way to get out,” he said.
Willis Engineering Inc. is handling the road’s construction. That firm is run by Robert Willis, the Leflore County engineer, but Abraham said Willis’ overseeing the project is far from a conflict of interest.
“The county engineer is often the engineer on a project like this,” said Abraham. “Who would you want to represent you other than the man who works with you every day?”