Outdoors: Dam project now focus of giant Franklin project

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2003

MEADVILLE &045; Wooden stakes topped with pink survey ribbon line Homochitto National Forest’s Okhissa Lake beachfront currently. The 1,000-acre lake and recreation area that is expected to revolutionize the economy in, and around Franklin County has hit a snag.

It’s been since Dec. 7 that any construction of the proposed 85-foot dam has seen any laying on of hands. District ranger Gary Bennett and public affairs officer Mary Bell Lunsford expected this February to be the completion date.

But feathers began to ruffle between the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service and contractor J.H. Parker of Natchez until the NRCS finally issued a formal notice demanding to know why work has been put on hold.

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&uot;It wasn’t such a surprise as it was a disappointment,&uot; Lunsford said. &uot;It’s a shame it hasn’t been completed yet.&uot;

Lunsford and National Forest Service project manager Carol Boll believe if Parker and the NRCS can reach terms, the dam &045; needing just 8 feet of elevation &045; can be finished by late fall. Then 24-30 months are needed for the lake to fill up, hypothesizing the opening fishable date for Okhissa to be in early 2006.

Okhissa officials are pressing on with other criteria that must be fulfilled.

&uot;The NRCS is our sister agency, and we’ve asked them to take the lead (on the dam),&uot; Bennett said. &uot;Obviously we’re going to work closely together, but they’re the ones who will proceed with getting the dam completed. It’s mainly little stuff. The same with every typical jobs &045; always problems.&uot;

Bennett, however, is unsure what are those hills to climb.

A project that has legs more than 40 years back continues to run in light of any hang-ups, though. The state legislature has pledged $1.25 million for roads that will make Okhissa accessible to the public.

With a match from the Federal Highway Administration, and an additional $2.5 million coming from Congressional appropriations, Bennett and his staff are taking necessary steps to ensure Franklin County is known for more than its profitable timber.

&uot;If you look at the overall contribution, the tens of thousands of people who come to the national forest yearly that buy products and real estate, it’d be wrong to say our only value is our timber,&uot; Homochitto planning team leader Charlie Price said. &uot;It’s true, but we’ve actually switched our program from watching forests grow to this past year when we burned around 38,000 acres.

&uot;Quail, deer, turkey all love fire. That means when that hunter comes back next year, he’ll have a memorable experience.&uot;

What Okhissa needs now are investors.

A prospectus, or imitation bid, will go out by end of summer to prospective clients who are interested in building and managing one of the following: a resort, camp ground and/or marina.

Those firms then have six months to put a package together, based on requirements such as design and how much they plan on returning to the government as a fee.

Then Okhissa officials select groups and extend a 30-year permit to own and run the particular facility they are bidding on.

&uot;This project is going to allow a lot of folks to come relate to a rural area,&uot; Bennett said. &uot;We’re talking 234,000 per year &045; or to put it better perspective, 10,000 each week. We don’t have the capability for that kind of crowd right now. Certainly, though, we hope to have the quality develop into maintaining those numbers.&uot;

The Mississippi Department of Transportation has already been on the scene, surveying the area and determining what separate types of soil exist on the six-mile stretch that wraps around the lake.

There are also talks in the works with an architecture firm from Atlanta about beach houses and boat ramps.

Southwest Mississippi, and the state in general, has always been dependent on its forests for part of its economy.

In the 1930s the federal government bought 1.1 million forestry acres from Oxford to Wiggins and converted those stretches of land into seven national forests, including the Homochitto.

&uot;Southwest Mississippi is heavily dependent on timber as a source of its economic base,&uot; Bennett said. &uot;We’re trying to use this project as a way to diversify for the local counties.&uot;

From 1990 to 2000 Homochitto National Forest produced in the neighborhood of $11 million in timber.

Twenty-five cents of every dollar went specifically to Franklin County schools and roads. Combining the receipts of timber, oil and recreation, Homochitto fashioned between $40million to $60 million of forestry products.

However, two years ago Homochitto became involved in some undisclosed litigation that stalled the efforts and benefits of its successful venture.

&uot;We’ve been a steady contributor to the social and economical wealth of this community,&uot; Price said. &uot;Franklin County is thought to be one of the highest-rated rural education systems in Mississippi. And I’d like to think we contributed strongly to that over the years.&uot;

All the more reason why so many are waiting for Okhissa to spread its wings. Three million dollars has been poured into improving the quality of fishing through channels, the evolution of gravel beds for bass and bream spawning and liming the lake’s floor.

Bennett feels confident once the avenue of the dam conflict is approached and solved, and Okhissa is allowed to move on, folks in and outside the Miss-Lou will begin to flock for the nature experience.

&uot;A lot of change is coming to this area once these facilities are up and running,&uot; Lunsford said. &uot;We’re talking hospitals, emergency medical outlets and, of course, opportunities for entrepreneurship.&uot;