U.S. Senator praises Vidalia for riverfront improvementsPublished 12:16am Friday, August 24, 2012
VIDALIA — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was quick to praise the Mississippi River as one of the greatest river systems — even if it has put Louisiana through two natural disasters in as many years.
“The river has been a little bit of a pain this year,” Landrieu said. “It’s frightening how high the water was last year, and you turn around… and we can’t find the water.
“But we need to help remind Louisiana residents why we have one of the greatest river systems.”
In a crowded room at the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center Thursday, the senator spoke to mayors — former and current, — elected officials and residents about top goals for the City of Vidalia and just how far the city has come.
“You look at Vidalia that 15 years ago was a sleepy town without a vision, it proves without contradiction that leadership — political and public — matters,” Landrieu said. “The riverfront development was the first big development for Vidalia and the second will be the expansion of the industrial park and after that is the port.
“But without public leaders like Mayor (Hyram) Copeland, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
With the industrial park being positioned at the top of Vidalia’s to-do list, Landrieu said she, Copeland and other city officials took the opportunity to meet personally with an industrial prospect interested in locating to the city’s industrial park.
Copeland said city officials have signed confidentiality agreements with the company, so the name of the company can’t be released.
The company is interested in building a manufacturing facility at the park, but needs immediate access to a port facility.
“This company is looking to make a $123 million investment in our area and bring about 68 jobs with them,” Copeland said. “Sen. Landrieu has been instrumental in helping us secure additional funding for the port project and helping us attract these new industries.”
But without a river that is properly maintained to ship the goods companies interested in locating to Vidalia are producing, Landrieu said the entire process is back at square one.
“We need to make sure this Mississippi River gets dredged as it should be,” Landrieu said. “The (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers’ budget is spread precariously thin, because they have $5 billion for the entire country and we could use a third of that just in Louisiana.
“The Corps’ budget has to go under some drastic and immediate modifications, and that’s one of the things I’m going to work on.”
And while dredging the river would be a solution for shipping goods, Landrieu said it’s not the solution for cities like Vidalia who depend on river levels to generate money through hydroelectricity.
On Wednesday, the city announced personnel changes including laying off 14 employees, moving four full-time employees to part-time and asking four full-time employees to retire early because of fluctuating levels on the Mississippi River during the past two years.
The city relies on revenues generated from the Sidney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station, located 40 miles from Vidalia, to operate the city.
The hydro plant depends on the natural flow of the Mississippi River and an elevation drop at the Old River Control complex to generate power and electricity.
Copeland said the hydro plant is currently operating at only 20 percent capacity because of the low river levels, which could cost the city approximately $4 million to $6 million in lost income.
Landrieu said she and Copeland are looking into a possible federal loan to help Vidalia stay afloat until the water levels begin to rise again.
“The answer is a short-term emergency assistance loan that Vidalia can use to borrow the money necessary to keep their operations moving forward and pay it back over a period of time,” Landrieu said. “That’s something that other cities up and down the river that are in similar circumstances like Vidalia will need.”
The loan is a revolving loan fund through the Economic Development Administration and Copeland said he has already been on the phone with officials from the agency about applying.
“We’re discussing that with the EDA to use that as a temporary solution to our monetary solution because of the river and the drought,” Copeland said. “We are confident we can get that loan with the senator’s help.”