Bluff trail nearly complete

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 29, 2011

NATCHEZ — Residents and tourists can now enjoy sitting at the pavilion outside the Cock of the Walk or leaning over an elegant iron fence on the Natchez bluff to grasp a river view.

The pavilion and fence were constructed as part of the Natchez Trails Project, which is approximately 65 percent complete, City Engineer David Gardner said.

Gardner said Phase 1 of the project is officially slated for completion at the end of June, but he hopes it will be finished by May 1.

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“We’re wrapping up on the bluff part of (the project) and getting ready to concentrate on the downtown section,” Gardner said.

Phase 1 project includes 5.6 miles of walking trails along Broadway, High, Rankin, Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. streets. It also includes a nature trail between Silver Street and Roth Hill.

“It’s been a big project with a lot of volunteers,” Gardner said.

Volunteer committees helped design, market and fundraise for the project, he said.

Gardner said Phase 1 elements still to be built include historic paneling, a pavilion roof, improved downtown sidewalks and two sets of wooden steps leading to the nature trail.

He said he has been very pleased with Camo Construction Co., which started construction in May.

But like most big projects, the construction process has had some stumbling blocks.

A few months ago, Gardner said the construction had to be revised to incorporate electrical outlets on the light posts for use during special occasions.

Gardner said he also realized the design called for too many crepe myrtle trees to be planted along the bluff, which would distract from the river view.

The mistakes were fixed, and construction is moving along smoothly, he said.

Jeff Gamberi, a design committee member, said he and Gardner have been very “picky” about the project and have paid much attention to detail and appearance.

“Were passionate about it,” Gardner said.

He said researching other trails systems in order to make presentations when asking for funding taught him a lot about trails and the positive impact they have on communities.

And dealing with the stumbling blocks has also been a learning experience.

“I didn’t know much about trails (before the project). Now I do,” Gardner said.

Phase 1 is comprised of four trails. Trails will include a nature trail, a bluff trail, a north downtown trail and a south downtown trail.

Some of the historic panels will be part of the “museum of streets,” which will show early sketches of what Natchez used to look like in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the same spot where each panel is posted.

Historic panels on the nature trail will feature information about what Natchez’s natural landscape consisted of years ago, Gardner said.

Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller and Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins worked on design of the panels.

The trails project has been a pet project of the city since 2004, when the idea emerged from a Community Alliance meeting, Gardner said.

The first grant applications were filed to the Mississippi Department of Transportation in 2006, and funding was wrapped up in 2008, Gardner said.

“MDOT really stepped up to the plate and hit a home run (in its involvement in the project),” Gardner said.

Gardner said the trails project finance committee raised money privately for the city’s match to MDOT funds in order to relieve the city of the burden.

Gardner said he hoped residents would gain a deeper sense of ownership and participation in the project because they helped fund it.

The state legislature also contributed earmarked funds, he said.

The first phase of the project is funded through $2.9 million in government earmarks, grants and private contribution.

Gardner he will have Phase 2 plans and project specifications completed by October of this year.

Natchez’s African American History will be the focus of Phase 2 of the trails project. The trail will stretch from St. Catherine Street to Forks of the Road, Gardner said.

Once complete, St. Catherine Street will feature refurbished sidewalks, handicapped ramps, landscaping work, lighting and historic exhibits.