Officials explain reasons behind Pat Harrison demolition


Although the recent demolition of the former Pat Harrison Waterway District building off U.S. 49 sparked some outrage among Hattiesburg residents – including some who suspected the demolition was purposely done under the cover of the weekend and without the proper approval – officials say the decision was made in the best interest of the public and was done strictly by the books.

David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, said the county-owned building – which was built in 1962 and was recently vacated when employees moved to a new site on J.M. Tatum Industrial Drive – had not been properly maintained for quite some time. Ditto for the iconic, blue-tiled mosaic on the side of the building facing U.S. 49, which had fallen off in a few spots.

“The building was left in somewhat of a state of disrepair,” Hogan said. “There was asbestos found in the building that had to be remediated.

“The board is not happy about having to make that decision (to demolish the building), but we do feel that it is the correct decision for the better of the community.”

Some residents raised concerns about the timeframe of the demolition, which continued over the weekend of Sept. 29 and 30. But Hogan said the demolition process started several weeks ago, when the asbestos remediation was done, and continued into the next week.

“After that (remediation) process was done, we began removing the HVAC systems, the landscaping and the catwalk prior to the weekend,” he said. “We had heavy equipment since Tuesday or Wednesday (of the previous week).

“So we prepared the building for the main demolition, which we did do on a Saturday because of less traffic flow and less people in the (Forrest General) Hospital parking lot. We had more than a dozen pieces of equipment, including our seven loader trucks, loading and hauling to the dump and coming back. So because of dust, noise and traffic, the decision was made to tear the main part of the building down (during that time).”

Concerns also were raised over the question of whether county officials needed a permit or permission from the state or municipal level to proceed with demolition. David Miller, attorney for the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, said a permit was not required under Title 39, Chapter 7 of the 2013 Mississippi Code.

Miller said that statute, which deals with libraries, arts, archives, history and antiquities, only requires a permit if an establishment meets one of two conditions: if the facility had previously been designated a historic landmark, or if bids had been taken on construction or transferred to a private party. Because the Pat Harrison Waterway District building had not been declared a historic landmark and the county used its own resources to demolish the building, the project did not fit either criterion.

Andrew Ellard, director of Hattiesburg’s Urban Development Department, said a permit from the city was not required because the building was owned and facilitated by the county, although his department is more than happy to work with any entity that does file a permit. A spokesperson for Attorney General Jim Hood said officials from Hood’s office were unable to comment on the matter.

Workers did try to preserve the mural before demolishing the Pat Harrison building, but found that effort infeasible because the mural was attached to the building itself.

“A lot of tiles were missing, and even to the touch, would fall off of the building,” Hogan said. “There has been some talk – nothing definite – about recreating some form of that image down near the Industrial Park, where the new location of Pat Harrison Waterway District is.”

The demolition of the building also was necessitated by upcoming roadwork near U.S. 49 and Forrest General Hospital that will provide two new stretches of roadway to replace the thoroughfare just north of the hospital. Under that plan, the portion of Mamie Street that runs between U.S. 49 and Arlington Loop will be closed – along with the intersection of Mamie Street and U.S. 49 – with two new roads taking place of that stretch.

Arlington Loop will be reopened to the U.S. 49 frontage road and will extend across the highway to Camp Street, while Adeline Street, on the south side of the hospital, will be extended to U.S. 49.

“That space has been of interest for future medical expansion for quite some time,” Hogan said. 

The Pat Harrison Waterway District was created with a directive of flood control in southeastern and east central Mississippi. The district provides camping, cabins and recreational facilities in Mississippi and is responsible for managing the rivers and their tributaries along the Pascagoula River Basin.

The district operates eight parks across the state: Archusa Creek, Big Creek, Dry Creek, Dunn’s Falls, Flint Creek Water Park, Maynor Creek, Okatibbee and Turkey Creek.

A few years ago, Forrest County officials decided to pull out of the district in the face of financial difficulties, after sending more than $500,000 a year to the district. Pat Harrison Waterway District then entered into a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Forrest County, which was settled earlier this year. Under terms of the settlement, the county was given ownership of the building when its staff moved to the new location in the industrial park.

In the days following the demolition of the building, Forrest County District 5 Supervisor Chris Bowen made a Facebook post about the factors that went into the decision to demolish.

“Pat Harrison Waterway District is a big deal. It always has been,” Bowen said. “We didn’t just wake up and say, ‘Hey, let’s get out of PHWD and let’s eliminate a piece of artwork.’

“I will always regret our departure from PHWD, the same way I’m saddened by the loss of that structure. However, I can’t dwell on it; we simply don’t have that luxury. We continue to protect the archival history of the Circuit Court, the Justice Court, and the old Federal … buildings, as they are designated historic landmarks, whereas PHWD was not.”