Wilkinson County taking advantage of natural resources

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 9, 2003

WOODVILLE &045; With its abundance of lush meadows, beautiful streams and pristine forestlands, Wilkinson County is rich in natural resources. Six months ago, the Wilkinson County Industrial Development Authority initiated a project designed to capitalize on that innate wealth.

&uot;We were trying to think of how we could make the biggest impact for everyone in the county Š And we’ve got the biggest museum of natural art you could ever want right here,&uot; Economic Development Director Stan Rouprich said.

From that realization, Project Park Acquisitions was born &045; a subcommittee of the Development Authority whose purpose is to provide a modern educational, recreational and entertainment complex to serve the county’s indigenous population while attracting tourism and related industries.

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‘It might be good to diversify Š’

Rouprich would be the first to admit the park project is not a total solution to the area’s economic problems.

But for Rouprich, the disappearance of textile mills in the post-NAFTA era and the recent loss of hundreds of jobs in the area timber industry signal a need to think outside of those conventional manufacturing jobs.

&uot;We are still trying to attract traditional industries to Wilkinson County.

It’s just that we decided instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, it might be good to diversify into eco-tourism,&uot; Rouprich said, pointing out that today’s rapidly changing business world makes it difficult to attract sustainable jobs.

&uot;The cycle of industry &045; the speed with which it changes &045; has really increased.

If you get an industry to stay five or 10 years now, you’ve really done something,&uot; he said.

In the park project, Rouprich sees a real opportunity to attract and maintain a permanent tourism and recreational trade to the county.

&uot;We have people who come here from Baton Rouge and New Orleans &045; bikers, bird watchers &045; but they have nowhere to stage an event.

They just come in and leave, and they don’t spend any money.

When you provide them with a state-of-the-art facility and park complex where they can stage events, you capture them and keep them and their dollars inside the county,&uot; Rouprich said.

Hunting season, which already generates an estimated $3 million annually in the Wilkinson County economy, provides a good example of how the park facility could be used to enhance an existing recreational industry.

&uot;If you look at that (hunting season), we could hold events at the park, like camouflage sales or cooking eventsŠAnd there are a lot of (outdoor activities) that don’t necessarily hinge on hunting.

But whatever the event, all of that increases your exposure and more people come,&uot; Rouprich said.

‘Nothing else like this Š’

Though the park is still in the early planning stages, a series of public meetings were held in April to get feedback from local citizens about the project.

&uot;The meetings were well-attended.

We got some really good comments and suggestions from people,&uot; Rouprich said.

County Justice Court Clerk Wanda Fountain, who serves on the park committee, was also impressed with the public interest generated by the meetings.

&uot;We know that quite a few people are very excited about the park project.

I think it’s going to mean more jobs for the county.

It’s going to benefit everyone,&uot; Fountain said.

From those meetings, an impressive list of park venues was developed, including two 16-acre fishing lakes, four baseball parks, an amphitheater, a rodeo arena and equine center, a reception hall, RV camping, cabin rentals and horseback riding, hiking, birding and biking trails.

Elevated boardwalks for handicapped visitors will also be included.

Some of the venues, such as the RV camping, cabin rentals, rodeo arena and amphitheater, will be contracted to private operators.

&uot;There’s nothing else like this in the state of Mississippi that I’m aware of,&uot; Rouprich said, adding that the park will provide local children a place to hold scouting, 4-H events and other educational programs for generations to come.

Kirk Smith, president of the Wilkinson County Board of Supervisors, said he has seen the impact that parks have made in other parts of the state.

&uot;Just from watching how other counties have benefited, I know it’s a good thing. It’s going to give the people somewhere to go and something to do,&uot; Smith said.

The Development Authority considered several possible locations for the park before deciding on a 166-acre tract wedged between U.S. 61 and Mississippi 563 just three miles north of Woodville.

The park’s proximity to Woodville and U. S. Highway 61, which will soon be four-laned from Natchez to Baton Rouge, was a major selling point for Rouprich.

&uot;Location, location, location.

It will be highly visible from Highway 61.

We’ll do some designs along the front to draw their attention, but that big body of water will be easy to see.

And the site is just 30 minutes from Natchez and 45 minutes from Baton Rouge,&uot; he said.

‘Nothing but positives …’

The Development Authority is a non-profit entity formed in 1996 to recruit a private prison to the county and oversee its management.

Corrections Corporation of America operates the prison and pays the Development Authority an annual $200,000 community impact fee to help recruit and support businesses and industries.

The prison revenue was used to purchase the park property at a cost of $408,000.

Rouprich said Project Park Acquisitions has just begun to seek estimates on the actual park construction costs, but the project could run over $10 million.

Two federal grant sources, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recreational Trails Program, will be used to fund the project in phases. Both programs are administered by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

The Recreational Trails Program pays 80 percent of eligible construction costs, while the Land and Water Conservation Fund provides a 50 per cent return.

&uot;We will get half of the purchase price of the property back over the entire length of the project.

We plan to donate portions of the property to the county in phases as it is developed,&uot; Rouprich said.

The actual grant applications will be submitted in November.

But Rouprich, who is already working closely with officials at the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and the Natural Resource Conservation Center, hopes to get permission for work on the park to start sooner.

&uot;We will need to get the lakes situated first, and then the amphitheaterŠWe’ll try to do the things that will have the greatest impact in the first year,&uot; Rouprich said.

Once the initial round of funding is obtained, Rouprich said other funding sources, such as Community Development Block Grants or the USDA Forest Service, may be explored to help pay for particular phases of the construction.

Woodville Alderman Earl Dean Anthony, another member of the park committee, said the project can only improve the quality of life in Wilkinson County. &uot;I’m very excited about it.

Being from a small area like this, I think it will be a shot in the arm.

The kids need it, and I know the town will be 100 per cent behind it and very willing to help in any way we can,&uot; Anthony said.

Rouprich said the park project offers a unique opportunity for local governments and private industry to forge partnerships.

&uot;You can do a lot to build trust between private industry and public officials.

There are nothing but positives that can come out of this,&uot; he said.