After more than a decade of planning, roadblocks and delays, Yazoo City officials are cautiously optimistic the Willie Morris Parkway is closer than ever to going from a drawing-board fantasy to a construction-site reality.
Initial plans for the three-mile parkway, named after the Yazoo City native who became a giant of the literary world, started in 1999, but have since stalled, re-started and stalled again. The parkway would connect Highway 49 to Highway 3, providing an east-west outlet for new development in the only area of town suited for it.
“This is the last part of the city where we can grow commercially,” said Henry Cote, executive director of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce.
With a cost of $8 million, the parkway would run right by the Yazoo County industrial park. In late April Yazoo City won a $3.3-million grant from the Mississippi Development Authority as part of that agency’s Economic Development Highway Fund. There’s a catch, though: The money must be spent within 18 months or it disappears. To go with the MDA money, the city has issued $2.2 million in bonds and the Yazoo County Port Commission has committed $125,000.
All that’s left is a $1-million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, the final details of the application Cote said the city would submit by June 8. Cote said “I would hope” the EDA provides an answer by the end of the year.
“If that $1-million grant comes through, we’ll just about be all the way there,” Cote said, adding that three parcels of private land still had to be acquired for the project. “We’ve almost got that settled. We haven’t had any problems so far, and I really don’t anticipate any.”
The latest $8-million cost is based on current fuel prices; Cote said that number could fall if fuel prices continue their recent downward trend.
Retail behemoth Walmart has long been rumored to be interested in becoming the parkway’s first tenant. Cote wouldn’t confirm Walmart’s interest in an interview last week with the Mississippi Business Journal but did say officials had already gotten a commitment from a “major retail development” once the parkway is open.
Cote added that the Chamber would market the parkway and the adjacent industrial park to the federal government’s Bureau of Prisons, which operates a medium-security correctional facility in Yazoo City, is the county’s largest employer and is in the middle of a $250-million expansion. Ideally, Cote said, the parkway would open up the industrial park to prison-related suppliers.
“What you eat for breakfast at the prison in Yazoo City, they eat in Leavenworth (Kansas) and every other federal correctional facility in the United States. We’ve done a market analysis and it showed that our industrial park, once the parkway is completed, will be the perfect site for a supplier that could service at least every federal prison in the Southeast, if not the entire system. You’re talking about hundreds of jobs there.”
City engineer Wayne Morrison’s firm did the original environmental planning and design work when the parkway was in its infant, two-lane stages. Mandates included with the $1-million EDA grant officials are hoping to land include a four-lane highway with divided landscaping, elaborate interchanges, sidewalks and safety-specific lighting. Those changes, developed in later reincarnations of the parkway, have driven up the price tag about $1.5 million the past seven years, making the EDA grant what Morrison called “the last piece of the puzzle.”
“The whole time we’ve been talking about it, since the very beginning, we haven’t had any money. But that has changed. We finally have some money in hand. I’m very optimistic that we are finally getting there. If the $1-million EDA grant – which is the biggest deal – comes through, I think we could start construction by next spring.”
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