Other Opinions

BILLY HEWES: Don't squander a second chance at Turkey Creek

Billy Hewes III

One of the great frustrations people have with the governmental process is the pace. Whether you're on the inside, or the outside, nothing seems to get done quickly. With most publicly funded projects involving multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and departments, one grudgingly admits that extra care is required with those expenditures. That still doesn't make patience virtuous.

Some projects, however, seem to have their own special monopoly on getting dragged out for years. One such project in Gulfport is improvements to the Turkey Creek Watershed, which have languished due to infighting and lost opportunity for over a decade.

In 2003, Supervisor William Martin had received commitment for $5 million in funding to de-snag Turkey Creek, which would have had a positive impact on flood mitigation in the area. He abandoned the project largely due to objection by his City Council counterpart with whom he shared portions of the district. The funding was lost. In addition, efforts by the Land Trust to create a Blueway on Turkey Creek, and by the Airport Authority to commit $500,000 for the establishment of walking trails and benches along this waterway were also thwarted. Another is over $23 million for rebuilding the 34th Street School as a Job Corps Center in 2012. That funding, too, was lost due to lack of consensus and squabbling over control of the project. As a result, those funds were redirected to projects outside of Mississippi. How many more opportunities can we afford to miss?

Today, we are given a second chance. Councilman Truck Casey, Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, and NAACP President Gary Fredericks have worked with Gulfport's CAO, Dr. John Kelly, to coordinate efforts with Gov. Phil Bryant and our federal delegation to create new opportunities for both the Turkey Creek Watershed and the Job Corps Center on 34th Avenue.

Specifically, the city of Gulfport will be receiving $7 million in NFWF Restore Act funds to compliment Coastal Preserve dollars awarded in 2014 for the Turkey Creek ($500,000), Coffee Creek ($500,000), and Brickyard Bayou ($1.5 million) tributaries -- all positively affecting low-moderate (income) areas of Gulfport. In addition, Sen. Thad Cochran's office has given specific attention to resurrecting funding for the 34th Street School Job Corps property.

Gulfport has sorely needed an east-west road corridor extension between U.S. 49 and Canal Road providing an alternate-route safety valve, as well as development and jobs creation opportunities for our citizens. Because this area is part of the Turkey Creek watershed, special interest groups have done all within their power to prevent any development there, again purportedly over neighborhood flooding. Anyone who has dealt with flooding firsthand knows these concerns are very real.

However, some of this disposition stems from a very combative relationship over 15 years ago with the property owner, Butch Ward. In the present tense, Mr. Ward's son has taken over the project and has shown great sensitivity through engaging in a more responsive, transparent approach to this potential development, by hiring nationally recognized and credentialed environmental consultants and engineers to address the concerns of residents of the Turkey Creek Watershed communities. They have endeavored to work closely with the Corps of Engineers, EPA, state and city agencies to ensure that any project they are involved with does not exacerbate flood risks in the watershed, and if anything, may provide enhancements.

In concert with federal and state regulators, Gulfport has insisted that our own engineers must certify that no harmful impacts will result. The city has also received commitment for donation of land for not only extension of Creosote Road, but also a 25-acre parcel for a recreation complex as part of the development.

Furthermore, our City Council has gone on record, voting 6-1 favoring this development, which has the potential for creating increased tax revenue and hundreds of new jobs. So why, with all of the safeguards in place, would the Steps Coalition and the Center for Justice still object to a build-out of a beneficial project along Interstate 10 that would be located on less than 5 percent of the watershed?

This, too, is a legitimate question, as most objections have been addressed. It is time for these groups to be about constructive progress, not preserving the status quo.

Some of the opposition arguably stems from the coalition efforts at continued relevance by working against any project that might help our State Port meet its jobs projections with HUD, using Turkey Creek as a wedge. It is the opinion of many that these actions are serving to work against the interests of the residents of North Gulfport, whom these groups claim to represent.

As for the city of Gulfport, we are encouraged about the renewed opportunities for our residents to enjoy enhancements to our ecosystems, recreational offerings, jobs base and economic development potential. It is our hope that our federal partners expedite the approval process, and that those engaged in a self-serving propaganda campaign of fearmongering and misinformation will recognize the progress these much needed improvements represent.

If history were to repeat itself through the further loss of millions of dollars of federal assistance, this time we, as a city, will know where to look. These overdue improvements to Gulfport should not drag on any longer. It's time for us to pull together as one.

Contact Billy Hewes, mayor of Gulfport, at 868-5700 or mayorsoffice@gulfport-ms.gov