Vidalia riverfront reaching goals

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 6, 2011

VIDALIA — The riverfront in Vidalia has blessed the city with new opportunities, new income and new life since the first mention of the project in 1991.

Now, as the city awaits construction of the newest riverfront project — a second hotel — area leaders are thankful the vision for the riverfront started when it did but feel ready to end the area’s development phase.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland was the first to walk out to the levees in the early 1990s and mention putting some infrastructure close to the Mississippi River, riverfront Director H.L Irvin said.

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From that point on, Copeland made it his goal to acquire the land where riverfront development currently sits and transform it into a source of Vidalia pride.

Irvin said it took 10 years to get the property that was owned by more than 300 different residents.

In the early 2000s the riverfront saw its first construction with the installation of the 1.25-mile walking trail, bathrooms and a spraying fountain.

Since then, a hotel, convention center and two hospitals have been added.

Plans are under way to add another hotel and a marina.

With approximately $170 million already invested in the riverfront, Irvin said the decision to build has worked out for the best.

“This has been one of the most positive and successful things in the Miss-Lou and Concordia Parish in many years,” he said. “The economic impact it has had has been tremendous.”

Copeland said the riverfront has been a huge asset to the community ever since it was built.

“It has shown time and time again how valuable it is,” he said.

Irvin said, on average, the businesses on the riverfront generate approximately $195 per visitor.

“That money really turns over,” he said. “It has helped us a lot.”

Concordia Parish Economic and Industrial Development District Executive Director Heather Malone said the riverfront has helped the city draw from its own resources.

“There are just so many people who don’t take advantage of the fact that we have the Mississippi River right here beside us,” she said. “It is functional. Living on the Mississippi is an asset to our community and we have to take advantage the many opportunities it brings.”

Malone said the riverfront has also helped Vidalia bring tourism to the area.

“Having the hotel on the riverfront with that view of the Mississippi is a great draw,” she said. “The meeting and conference spaces, the RV park and the walking trails, these are all just great amenities that bring tourists in.”

City Manager Ken Walker said the riverfront has been a phenomenal benefit to the city for its beauty, but more importantly for the jobs it has brought.

“Between all the businesses down there it contributes at least a couple of hundred jobs,” he said. “And that is not an insignificant number.”

With success from all groups that have located on the Riverfront, Copeland said he is excited to continue to expand, starting with a marina.

Phase one of the three-phase construction project began in October 2008 and was completed in April 2010.

The first phase replaced the existing boat ramp on the south end of the Riverfront with a more direct approach from the road, extending it so that boaters have access even at the lowest water points.

The first phase also included the widening of an existing parking area to better accommodate boats, and a portion of the river walk was lowered to make the ramp more accessible.

Boats are currently able to use the marina, Copeland said.

Work on the second phase of the marina has not yet started.

Walker said the city is seeking grants to fund the next phase of the marina, especially a grant that has money available for the use of navigable waterways.

“Since there is such little recreational use of the Mississippi River in general, we stand a good chance of getting the grant funds,” he said. “Our waterways are set up better for recreational purposes.”

Copeland said he has meetings scheduled in the next few weeks regarding the marina and that once the city receives additional funding, the project should be complete in approximately two to three years.

The second phase of the marina will include the construction of a floating dock and a wave alternator upriver.

The proposed third phase will include the construction of more docking space.

Walker said once the marina is complete, it will have 120 boat slips and a fueling station.

“This will give local boaters a place to maintain their boats on the river,” he said. “This is a facility that is not replicated within a reasonable distance so it may bring outsiders as far away as Baton Rouge who want to keep their boats here.”

Walker said bringing boaters from other areas can be a huge boost to Vidalia’s economy.

“The fueling station will hopefully encourage people to stop and visit local stores and restaurants in the area,” he said. “They would be coming to the community and spending their money to get the amenities that we have.”

Walker also said that since the new proposed hotel will not feature a restaurant, the city is considering including one with future phases of the marina.

The construction of a Marriott Town Place Suite was scheduled to begin this month but lease agreement details have delayed the start of work, Copeland said.

“Both of our attorneys are working out the details, and we are looking to sign it in the next two weeks,” he said. “Hopefully construction will begin within a few months of the contract being signed.”

The hotel will be located on the south side of Promise Hospital on a three-acre plot. Concordia Group LLC of Metairie, La., is building the hotel.

Concrdia Group is leasing 6.7 acres to build specialty shops on the 3.7 acres the hotel doesn’t occupy, Copeland said.

The projected $10-million hotel will be four stories tall and will house approximately 102 rooms, bringing approximately 20 to 30 new jobs with it, Walker said.

The hotel will specialize in extended stay guests, which is good news for the city, Malone said.

“With Promise Hospital right there, it would be a huge asset to the families who have someone staying at the hospital,” she said. “Being able to have family close but with access to amenities of an apartment gives people a place to stay.”

Malone said the extra rooms will also be a large help when conventions come to Vidalia.

“Many conventions, especially state conventions, require the guests to stay in the state, and then we don’t have enough beds to put them in,” she said. “With the upgrades going on all over Vidalia, I think we will be needing the extra space.”

Copeland said once construction begins, completion of the hotel should take 12 to 14 months to complete.

With those two projects looming the Vidalia riverfront’s future, Copeland said there won’t be any room to add anything else.

“Once we put the hotel up, that will pretty much take care of the property,” he said. “We are going to leave the rest of it as green space so people can just enjoy it.”

Copeland said he is proud of the riverfront’s evolution and wants to continue the success it had through the cities other projects.