Following a years-old effort from Lauderdale County, the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation and the City of Meridian to attract jobs to the area, the Meridian City Council on Tuesday voted to close Sweet Gum Bottom Road.
The road will be closed to accommodate a still-nascent economic development plan on a nearby plot of land.
The new route, West Malone Ranch Road, will be paved by the spring of 2020, said Chief Administrative Officer Richie McAlister, though he added that the road will be drivable earlier.After a 30-day period where a contract is advertised and an engineer hired, dirt will be laid for a new access road followed by crush and run—grounded concrete—to make it through the fall, he said.
The overall cost for the new road will be $420,000, he said, not including the cost of lighting along it.
The council will open bids for building the road in a future meeting. Tuesday’s meeting only resulted in Sweet Gum Bottom’s closure.
Mayor Percy Bland and McAlister made the case to the council that the road’s closure will be a step towards the long-held ambition of providing “livable wage jobs” in an area where there is a ready workforce.
“Today is an exciting day, not only for Meridian but all of East Mississippi,” Bland said in a statement where he praised business leaders, county and city government.
“What we have that (other Mississippi cities) don’t have is workforce,” said McAlister, referencing unemployed and underemployed numbers in East Mississippi, as well as recent graduates from Meridian Community College.
State, county and city governments have all contributed to the project in the past, with the state providing a bond worth more than two million dollars for the planned industrial park and Lauderdale County clearing trees, among other work. In an interview after the meeting, McAlister said the eventual aim is to attract “high-paying” industry like aerospace or automotive companies.
Residents express frustration
But residents who live near the road expressed frustration at Tuesday’s meeting. Their complaints: a lack of communication and unkept promises “that never should have been made,” as Sadie Martin, who lives near the road, put it. Namely: when the city said in January that a new road would be ready before Sweet Gum Bottom closed.
That fell through as projected costs rose from $150,000 for an access road to nearly a million.
“The mayor…first said $150,000,” said Marie Franklin, who also lives near Sweet Gum Bottom. “The residents knew it would take more money than that.” Franklin, who is running for District 5 supervisor on the county board of supervisors, went on to list how prices ballooned over the next three months.
The sharp rise came after residents asked for extra “bells and whistles,” said McAlister, citing locals’ requests for curb, gutter and striping improvements.
President of the council Tyrone Johnson represents Ward 2, which Sweet Gum Bottom Road is a part of. He said there will be no unkept promises this time around.
“The beginning of this whole process, when the city found out about it, there was a lot of miscommunication,” he said. “What I didn’t want to happen was the constituents in my district not knowing what was going on, so at first I was against this. But today I voted yes because everything that my constituents wanted, and their concerns, we addressed them.”
“Speaking from a ward standpoint and a city standpoint, some tough decisions have to be made.”
In the end, he said, the city needs jobs, and said he will be watching the road’s progression closely.