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‘Second Battle of Port Gibson’

Widening Church Street polarizes Claiborne Co. community

Few Mississippi communities straddle the past and the future quite like Port Gibson. Just outside the city limits lies Mississippi’s only nuclear power plant, Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, which is preparing for an upgrade that would make it the most powerful energy-generating nuclear reactor in the U.S.

This is in stark contrast to the city. Deemed too pretty to burn by Gen. U.S. Grant during the Civil War, its historic structures were spared the torch, giving the city a unique, bygone ambiance. The community, which has low per-capita income and high unemployment, enjoys a thriving tourist trade as people come to visit the city’s old homes and picturesque houses of worship lining aptly named Church Street.

However, it is here that the past is colliding with the future, and has the Claiborne County city of less than 2,000 residents polarized. Many have dubbed it the Second Battle of Port Gibson, a conflict that has raged four times longer than the War Between the States.

The issue is Church Street, which has another name — U.S. 61. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) wants to widen the thoroughfare, one of the few projects left to be completed under the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program.

For decades, proposals were raised, but no consensus reached. Community leaders raised concerns about widening Church Street/U.S. 61, fearing it would destroy the town’s historic feel and, thus, its tourist draw. Talk of a bypass also had its detractors, including among many in the anti-widening camp, that potential visitors — and their wallets — would drive right past the city without a look.

The “war” seemed to have turned into a cold one until earlier this month when city and county leaders announced they had decided that widening Church Street was the better alternative. The leaders reported that the decision was unanimous, though no record of the vote has been released.

Unanimity certainly seems hard to find on the street level in Port Gibson.

Anti-widening folks are easy to find and are quick to give their opinion. Not surprisingly, Church Street residents and churchgoers are against the widening proposal, many of which have planted “Save Church Street” signs on their property. They point to the cutting of trees and the noise and rumblings of trucks on the roadway that they claim are already damaging their homes and churches as reasons against the widening.

One of the beautiful old homes that Port Gibson is know for proudly displays a sign in the front yard in opposition of the proposed widening of Church Street.

One of the beautiful old homes that Port Gibson is know for proudly displays a sign in the front yard in opposition of the proposed widening of Church Street.

Church Street resident Suanne Drake said conversations on her front porch are impossible due to the noise. She said she is constantly rearranging items on shelves and cabinets in her home due to the vibrations caused by the heavy traffic. She also is worried about her driveway.

“The only way to get in and out of my home is Church Street,” Drake said. “I’m looking at backing out on a major, six-lane federal highway.”

One individual on Church Street, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed to cracked masonry, again blaming it on the heavy trick traffic.

Even those located in the town’s business district, which lies to the west of Church Street, are largely opposed to the widening proposal. No business owner or manager polled came out for widening, though two refused comment.

The only person willing to go on record in support of widening Church Street is Kenneth Ross, director of Port Gibson Main Street Inc. Ross’ position is that a bypass would have too great of a negative impact on traffic. He points out that Church Street is already six-lanes wide if pull-off lanes are counted; thus, he feels the impact of expanding the thoroughfare would be far less than opponents claim.

Qualifying his position, Ross added, “My mother lives on Church Street.”

He portrays expansion opponents as a small, vocal, well-organized group of preservationists, who are making it seem the anti-widening camp is larger than it actually is.

Certainly, the pro-bypass group has a champion with a voice that carries. Emma Crisler is publisher of the weekly newspaper Port Gibson Reveille, housed in a structure on Main Street in the business district that dates back to the 1880s, and she is also a Church Street resident. She is vehemently opposed to the widening proposal, and has no problem with venting on the issue.

“This has been going on for years now,” she said. “Why the big push now?”

Crisler pointed to a February issue of her paper that listed some of the most important issues facing the area. The widening-versus-bypass issue was not even mentioned.

“It just bubbled up out of nowhere,” she said.

Crisler said she is also curious why the issue seems to be on a fast track considering a yet-to-be-completed environmental impact study. There is concern that the widening project would cause a rise in Bayou Pierre, which runs north and west of the city. The engineering firm Michael Baker Jr. has been commissioned to study the issue, but the findings are not expected to be released until sometime in 2011.

“What’s the hurry now?” she asked. “I guess MDOT has decided on widening Church Street regardless.”

The historic segment of Church Street is almost entirely residences and churches. Few businesses are located there. However, businesses in Port Gibson will be directly affected by the project, according to information obtained by Crisler from MDOT.

U.S. 61 is only two-lanes wide as it enters town from the north and crosses the two-lane bridge over Bayou Pierre. That segment of roadway is looking at much more significant widening than the historic stretch of roadway.

This non-historic area is the home to a significant number of Port Gibson’s businesses. According to Crisler’s list, 17 businesses stand in the way of widening and face relocation. Ten others would be “impacted.” Another six unoccupied properties would also be affected.

“Why those people aren’t standing on their head is beyond me,” Crisler said.

What will happen next is unclear as the issue has also divided state transportation leaders. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall just this month said he thought the bypass alternative would go forward. He has previously voiced strong anti-widening opinions.

At a past Neshoba County Fair, Hall said MDOT is willing to do what Grant was not — desecrate it.

“Yes, it has been difficult to find a route around Port Gibson, which is agreeable to everyone,” Hall added. “We have looked at alternates a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h and i — none of them was acceptable to everybody — but to suddenly announce that it is going right through the middle of town whether the local folks like it or not is unbelievable government arrogance.”

According to the Associated Press, MDOT executive director Butch Brown is on record as saying even if the environmental impact study finds no impact on Bayou Pierre, another public meeting would be conducted before work began.

Photos by Wally Northway – Mississippi Business Journal

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