Vidalia emerges as regional bright spot

Published 12:38 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles looking at the issues that shaped the Miss-Lou in the first decade of the 21st century.

VIDALIA — Ten years ago, Vidalia was in the middle of an economic recovery. Today, it’s a regional bright spot with a developed riverfront, new industry and proliferating small businesses.

At the turn of the century, the city was starting a turnaround that Mayor Hyram Copeland credits to the location of the Fruit of the Loom factory in the area a few years before.

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But there were still stretches of space along U.S. 84 in town that were undeveloped, and the first thing people saw when the came into town over the bridge was a mat field.

Copeland said he credits much of the growth of the last 10 years to plans made in the early 1990s.

“When I took office in 1992, we had lost roughly 1,000 people, we had for sale signs throughout Vidalia, empty storefronts on Carter Street,” he said. “Our goal was to do what we could to turn that around and bring more industry and people into our community.”

The city wasn’t able to do all those things at once, but by the time 2000 rolled around, Copeland said the city leadership had had time to sit back and plan as much as they could for future development.

“Fruit of the Loom gave us some foresight and insight into recruiting businesses into the area,” he said.

When those plans were in place, they were taken incrementally. In 2001, the mat field was developed into what is now known as the river walk, and by 2002 people were swarming the then-incomplete Comfort Suites applying for jobs.

That same year, the initial plans for the Riverpark Medical Center were announced, and in 2003 ground was broken on the Bryant O. Hammett Vidalia Conference and Convention Center, then known as the Gateway Center.

By late 2007, work had begun on a second medical center on the riverfront, Promise Hospital of the Miss-Lou.

Other companies are still looking at the riverfront, Copeland said.

Former State Rep. Bryant Hammett — whose name the convention center now bears — said he doesn’t know of many places that are developing like Vidalia has in the last 10 years.

“I think Vidalia is a bit of a shining star, especially in the Louisiana and Mississippi River Delta region, and the riverfront has a lot to do with that.”

“I think it is one of the most positive things that has happened to our part of the world.”

Working with former Mayor Sidney Murray and Copeland to bring the riverfront project to fruition was one of the things Hammett said he was proudest with which to be associated.

“I was in a position in the legislature to be able to help them gain the funding to realize the vision, and it has come along pretty much like was expected,” he said.

“It really worked — it was a combination of federal, state and local dollars, and private investment, and it worked.”

But development hasn’t been limited to the riverfront. A proliferation of strip mall development — the homes to numerous small businesses — has happened in recent years. Three new strip malls were built in the last two years.

Businessman Bill Hughes built one of the structures in 2008 when he saw a growing market.

“I was actually planning on building one before they built (one of the first ones) on Carter Street,” he said. “Everything worked out better than my wildest dreams.

“I have never skipped a beat on the rent.”

Perhaps the most noticeable development along U.S. 84 coming into Vidalia is the superstore opened by retail behemoth Walmart. Among the negotiations the city made to bring the store to town was a break in its utility bills.

As Walmart opened its Vidalia location, another large employer — Louisiana Elastomer — was negotiating with the city. The LAEL rubber-recycling plant was committed to coming to the area in 2003, and after a public-private partnership that located the plant in the second Vidalia industrial park was worked out, it opened in 2009.

The biggest accomplishment of the last 10 years, though, was what got everything that happened to come together, Copeland said.

“The main accomplishment has been the ability to work together to accomplish those goals,” he said. “In Vidalia, at times we may have our differences, but we are willing to put those aside to work together for our common goals.”

And Copeland said he doesn’t believe Vidalia has reached its capacity to expand.

A marina project on the riverfront is under way, and the first phase of the Vidalia port has just been funded, a fact that Copeland said will be very attractive to industries.

“I am excited about the future of Vidalia,” he said. “I think it is positive.”