Barker proposes new redevelopment district along Leaf, Bouie rivers

By HASKEL BURNS,

Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker is proposing the idea of creating a new official district that would stretch east and west of the Bouie and Leaf rivers aimed at promoting infrastructure, recreation and economic vitality in that area of Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest County.

Endeavors in new district – tentatively known as the Leaf and Bouie Redevelopment District – would be funded by a percentage of the ad valorem taxes already collected by the two cities and the county. For the two municipalities, officials also could consider pledging a portion of the sales tax collected in that area.

“First, we all have a mutual interest in what happens on the Leaf and Bouie rivers – for interest, Councilwoman (Deborah) Delgado’s Twin Forks Rising,” Barker said at Monday’s Hattiesburg City Council meeting. “With our side of the river and Petal’s side of the river, we know that we can certainly make better use of the water there and turn it into an asset.

“Secondly, we’ve seen the potential of shared use on the river with our Fourth of July celebration, which brought 8,000 to 10,000 people combined on both sides of the river. So what we bring here today is the prospect of enhancing the quality of life and bringing people back to both sides of the river, and strengthening all of our economies through the creation of a joint river district.”

The proposed district runs west along Old Highway 42 in Hattiesburg and stretches as far east as South Main Street and Carterville Road in Petal. It also runs from south of East Hardy Street up north to Glendale Avenue.

Between Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest County, the proposed Leaf and Bouie Redevelopment District contains 1,316 parcels. Hattiesburg’s portion of those parcels equated to about $77,265 in 2018 ad valorem taxes, while Petal’s properties in the district brought in about $66,202 and Forrest County garnered $187,950 in that same year.

Each year at budget time, members of the Hattiesburg City Council, the Petal Board of Aldermen and the Forrest County Board of Supervisors would specify what percentage of ad valorem or sales tax collected would go to the district.

“It could be 100 percent, 50 percent, 35 percent,” Barker said. “There may be high-budget years where it has to be zero percent. So what could happen theoretically is that Hattiesburg could pledge 100 percent of our ad valorem taxes, which would be about $77,000 to go back into this district.

“Forrest County may pledge 40 percent, which is about $77,000, and Petal may pledge 50 percent, which is about $33,000. Combined, that would create $185,446 in recurring annual revenue that could be used to promote development in that area.”

Another possibility is periodic grants, such as those received from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, many of which require a 20 percent match.

“Well, when you start putting in $185,000 over the course of several years, that’s a pretty big match that we could leverage into something really big,” Barker said. “So I think both cities and the county have a strong vision for the area, and we’ve heard it for years with Twin Forks Rising.

“It’s one that makes it economically viable, one that makes it a destination for people to come and enjoy what I think is one of the most untapped resources in our area, and that’s the Leaf River. This district would give us the financial capacity to start turning those visions into reality.”

In addition to the Hattiesburg City Council, Barker also has approached the Forrest County Board of Supervisors and the Petal Board of Aldermen, who expressed interest in the project. Barker will now accept more feedback from those members before bringing the matter to the Mississippi Legislature.

“It’s a longer Legislative session this year; it’s 120 days, but we still need to kind of get moving on this,” he said. “Because we’re all in the same county, we can adopt one local and private piece of legislation, and that will then need to go to (Representatives Percy Watson and Missy McGee) and see if we can’t get it through up there.”

The idea for the Leaf and Bouie Redevelopment District came about when Barker and other officials were brainstorming ideas on how to maintain the current East Hardy Street bridge – which is scheduled to be demolished and replaced a few yards downstream – and use it for other means.

“Forrest County received $15 million last year through the emergency bridge replacement program, and the initial concept was that Forrest County was going to build this new bridge south of the current bridge and then tear the old bridge down,” Barker said. “It would cost them $1 million to tear that old bridge down.

“We think with some preventative maintenance and some minor investment, you could keep the current bridge and use it solely for pedestrian and bicycle use. So as we got to thinking about that, we quickly saw the potential for much more.”