FREEDOM FUNDING: City gets $24.57 million grant for Forks to Freedom Corridor

Published 11:00 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

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NATCHEZ — The city of Natchez is being awarded a $24.57 million RAISE grant for the proposed Forks to Freedom Corridor.

“I was in a workforce development meeting at Alcorn when I got the call this afternoon from (U.S. Sen. Roger). Wicker and he gave me the news. It made me so emotional. I looked up, and I happened to be standing below the portrait of Hiram Revels,” said Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson. “How poetic. At the heart of Forks to Freedom is the ability to honor Hiram Revels, and there I was, standing right by his portrait.”

This was the city’s second attempt to apply for the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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“We were told last year that we were in the top tier for this grant. We had a meeting in the fall about reapplying for the grant and what we needed to do differently. We also had a debriefing of our application with the U.S. Department of Transportation. We were deliberate in following their advice,” Gibson said.

The grant requires no matching funds, the mayor said.

He credited many people and a team effort to bring the grant home to Natchez. Gibson called the work of the city’s representatives in Congress to lobby for the grant’s approval a truly bipartisan effort.

“What I have to underscore here is the most important thing is the bipartisan support of our entire delegations, including individuals who no longer represent us,” meaning U.S. Rep. Michael Guest, who no longer represents Natchez because of redistricting.

“Congressman (Bennie) Thompson spent over an hour with Marla and me, hearing our pleas for his help in seeing this application through to a successful conclusion,” he said.

“The Forks to Freedom Corridor Complete Streets project represents a significant step forward for Natchez. This substantial federal grant underscores our commitment to creating safer, more accessible, and more attractive urban spaces. I am proud to support initiatives that contribute to the betterment of our communities,” Thompson said.

“We also spent time with Sen. Wicker during his very important re-election campaign when he could have been campaigning, but he pledged his support for this project.”

Gibson said U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., also supported the project.

Locally, he said so many worked on the grant application.

“This would never have happened without Kathleen Bond and the Natchez National Historical Park, and Zion Chapel and Trustee Norma West and its pastor, the Rev. Byrdon Mitchell, as well as Robert Pernell and the U.S. Colored Troops Monument Committee.”

He also thanked members of the Downtown Natchez Alliance, Friends of the Riverfront and the Historic Natchez Foundation and stakeholders in North Natchez, “all the way from the flyover to the bluff, along D’Evereux Drive, St. Catherine Street and Jefferson Street.”

The grant funds will be spent to create an entrance to the downtown Natchez area, beginning on D’Evereux Drive at the flyover, continuing with street and pedestrian crosswalk and traffic improvements to the Forks of the Road site, on down St. Catherine Street to Hiram Revels Plaza, and continuing down Jefferson Street to the Bluff and the proposed U.S. Colored Troops Monument.

“It’s going to be transformative for our Forks of the Roads site, including significant improvements to enhance tourism at that site and restoration of the historic brick bridge on Old Washington Road that crosses the bayou there,” Gibson said.

The grant is also expected to enhance the traffic count and economic vitality of D’Evereux Drive and bring back economic vitality for the historic Black business district in Natchez.

Robert Pernell, chairman of the U.S. Colored Troops Monument Committee, said he was elated that the grant was awarded to Natchez.

“I am thankful to the city and Dan Gibson and all the legislators who have supported us throughout these years,” Pernell said.

Darryl White, who Gibson said coined the phrase Forks to Freedom, said he is pleased about the recognition it will bring to some important people.

“The Forks to Freedom Road will pay tribute and recognition to Hiram Revels and others who served this community during the years immediately following enslavement,” White said.

Kathleen Bond, superintendent of the Natchez National Historical Park, of which Forks of the Road is a part, said working on the grant with the city and other partners was a great and successful experience.

“Not only does the project recognize significant historic parts of the city and improve infrastructure in those areas, it also improves safe access to those sites for locals and visitors alike. And by rehabilitating the historic bridge at Forks of the Road, it moves us closer to a more significant visitor experience at that important site,” she said.

Chesney Doyle of the Downtown Natchez Alliance worked for two years as part of the RAISE grant writing team led by Russ Bryan, Neel-Schaffer, and including James Johnston of the City of Natchez, Bond and Carter Burns of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

“I couldn’t be more excited. For me, this project is not just about infrastructure. It’s also about our community’s highest aspirations for equity, honesty, and racial reconciliation. It’s proof that our community can accomplish almost anything when we work together. Our Forks to Freedom Corridor is going to have far-reaching quality of life, economic, and cultural benefits for us all,” Doyle said.