Officials share message of improvements with Vidalia leaders

Published 12:11 am Saturday, May 10, 2014

VIDALIA — Vidalia has a “screaming opportunity” if those who want it to grow will listen.

That was the message Laurence Leyens with the Orion Planning Group brought to a gathering of Vidalia business and civic leaders. Leyens was one of two consultants who were in Vidalia to follow-up on a similar planning session the city hosted in the fall.

Natchez has more than 25 houses on the market right now, Leyens said, while 25 houses have been sold in Vidalia in the last 12 months.

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“These houses are selling at $123 a square foot,” Leyens said. “Y’all are paying massive dollars for 50-year-old inventory, and y’all seem to be satisfied for it.

“We need to be building yuppieville. I can take $123 a square foot and build you a to-specification house in Madison that is going to be worth $500,000 when we’re done.”

While people used to follow jobs to choose where they lived, they now choose where they want to live and work in a global economy, Leyens said.

Vidalia needs to find out why people are buying houses there and continue to develop that resource, he said.

When those present told Leyens the Vidalia school system was a draw locally, he said that wasn’t surprising.

“My son’s future is not for sale,” he said. “I am not going to move into a bad economy because it is cheaper to live there when my son’s future is at stake.”

The problem Vidalia faces, Leyens’ partner Bob Barber said, is that it is a “built out” town with no property to develop inside the city limits.

“Obviously there is vacant land just outside the city limits — we know that — but inside there is very little vacant land left,” Barber said.

Leyens likewise said the city does not have a central area that gives it a feeling of place.

“Where is Vidalia?” he said. “Right now, I drive through and it’s all highway.”

The area has plenty of potential to develop as the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale oil and gas play demands more and more from the regional transportation hubs like US. 61 and U.S. 84, Leyens said, but the city also needs to develop some kind of standards to ensure its quality development.

“Developers can come in here and build something only meant to last 10 years, and at the end of 10 years, it’s junk and they’re gone, and you’ve got junk,” he said.

Instead, leaders can adopt codes to ensure a higher standard of quality.

“I go to a lot of small cities like this, and they have this depression-era or 1970s-era mentality of, ‘Thank God we have a grocery store, even if it is a metal building.’” Leyens said.

“If you started adopting standards and expectations that are higher, you are influencing the value of that property and the property adjacent to it. You can say, ‘We want it to have a brick facade, we want it sort of set back and we want some trees in the parking lot, and suddenly it’s a different environment that raises the value not only of that property, but the property next to it.”

The city likewise should standardize its codes so the already developed properties are less disparate in appearance.

“Right now, you have people who have put up a nice front, but they don’t have the landscaping to go with it,” Leyens said. “If you don’t have the standards, all you have is a building with a funny front right next to a metal building.”

Barber worked with the group to discuss further ideas about possible code and zoning changes the city could effect.

“We did some work a couple of years ago, but we are working to develop a new city master plan,” Mayor Hyram Copeland said. “The last master plan was made in the 1970s, and we really need to bring that forward in order to move in the future.”

Copeland said City of Vidalia officials would continue to work on the new master plan in the coming months.