Officials lobby for Natchez

Published 12:09 am Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Natchez — Natchez city officials traveled to the nation’s capital last week in an effort to keep the city in the minds of legislators. Mayor Phillip West, City Engineer David Gardner and Natchez-Adams County Development Authority Director Jeff Rowell left Natchez with a two-fold purpose.

First, the group wanted to lobby Congress for Natchez projects and second, they encouraged legislators to support other states in the completion of the El Camino Corridor.

“We talked with several Mississippi delegates regarding the St. Catherine Creek project,” West said. “We also talked about streets and roads projects.”

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West said the city was allocated $1.5 million in federal funds for street and road repairs last year, but lost it after the appropriations bill that included the funds died. Part of the group’s mission in Washington was to resurrect that request.

“When the Democrats took over, the leadership didn’t pick up those bills,” West said. “They decided to let it die.”

The group met with U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s staff to discuss the $1.5 million and West said he was hopeful the senator would support the bill that includes the repair funds. Cochran is a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides how to spend federal funds.

“Our infrastructure is so old here,” Gardner said. “We need help above and beyond most cities.”

Gardner said the Natchez projects would likely be earmarks on other bills and he expected there to be fewer earmarks this year than last.

“Earmarks may be very limited this year,” he said. “We may have to pick and choose what we ask for. The environment will be tough for earmarks.”

“You never know what will happen,” West said. “Everyone we met with expressed concerns about earmarks. No one was real clear that there wouldn’t be earmarks for our projects though.”

The group also attempted to re-energize a bill that contains funds for the completion of the city’s trails project. Just like the $1.5 million, the trails funds were also approved last year, but were part of a bill that died.

“If we don’t go and continue to lobby, we know we won’t be successful,” West said. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you squeak long enough, they’ll listen.”

Gardner said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker was particularly fond of the city’s St. Catherine Creek project. The group requested $800,000 for Phase I of the project. The city hopes to dam up parts of the creek and create recreational lakes.

“Wicker was very responsive to our lakes project,” Gardner said. “We felt good about our meetings. We feel we have some good voices in the state and we feel good about our requests.”

While most of the El Camino Corridor has been four-laned through Mississippi, Natchez recognizes the benefit of seeing the entire project completed, Gardner said.

“We know the economic development of our four-lane could be much greater if the corridor was completed,” Gardner said.

If completed, the project would provide a four-land highway from Georgia to Texas. The group’s case for the completion of the project centered around economic development and a hurricane evacuation route.

“During a hurricane, U.S. 84 would be a good evacuation route,” Gardner said. “If I-10 was to blow out in a storm, U.S. 84 would be a good alternative. We felt we really made our case for it.”

The group attended close to 20 meetings during their three days in Washington. Gardner said they timed their trip to coincide with the deadline for appropriations bills to be submitted.

“It was no accident,” Gardner said. “The legislators will be putting together their requests next month.”

While neither West nor Gardner could say if any of the city’s requests would be approved, they both said they left Capitol Hill feeling good about their efforts.