When the Mississippi Legislature completes its estimated $400-million bond package this week, there will be money provided for construction of the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island.
That’s the good news.
Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus — chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee which crafts the bond package — said Tuesday the bill would provide anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 for the facility.
That’s the bad news.
“For Phase 2, we needed $2.5 million, so this just moves the ball further,” said Kevin Stafford, the city’s engineer. “After that, the city would have to piece together the balance. I haven’t been told by anyone what happens from here.”
The funding issue comes at a bad time for the city, which faces a $338,000 operating fund debt by the end of the fiscal year, based on projections. Given that grim prognosis, issuing bonds to cover remaining cost for completing the facility could be a non-starter.
Meanwhile, it’s been two years since $3.2 million Phase 1 amphitheater construction, which included the stage, was completed. Phase 2 will include seating, gating, concession stands and restrooms, among other things.
City officials hoped to open the facility next spring.
“I don’t think there’s much we can do,” Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said. “Before this current financial situation came up, we had talked about borrowing some money to finish the amphitheater and make improvements at Propst Park, using the ($400,000) we get from the (2-percent restaurant sales tax) to pay the loan. But now, I just don’t see how we can do that until we get this financial situation straightened out. It’s just my opinion, but I think we should put everything on hold. I know the amphitheater and Propst Park are projects that need to be done, but we need to get hold of the budget situation first.”
Without other revenue, Stafford said there are a few options for the money from the bond money.
“You could put in the hard-back seating, which would cost anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000,” Stafford said. “Then, you could put in the fencing, which would be another $150,000, roughly. Once you do that, you’re getting pretty close to have something you could sell tickets for. But you’re still missing things you need, such as restrooms, concessions, the big front wall that hides everything from the road and keeps the sound in.”
Based on his conversations with city officials, Stafford said he believes the city will not open the facility until it is fully completed.
“We did talk about that not wanting to open the amphitheater if it wasn’t completely finished,” Gavin said. “There was some agreement that if we opened it without everything being done, it would leave a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. Now, given the situation, I’m not so sure letting (the amphitheater) sit there and not be used wouldn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth, too.”
The Legislature also is considering a bill to add 1 percent to the citywide restaurant sales tax that would be used for operating and maintaining the amphitheater. City officials have said part of that money would pay for a third party management firm to book events there.
Mayor Robert Smith did not return calls or texts from The Dispatch by press time.
Other bond money
Also expected to be included in the bond package is money for road projects in Clay County, Smith said.
“They were wanting $997,000 for that,” Smith said. “What we’ve decided to do is do it in two phases. It looks like they’ll get $500,000 this year and the remaining $497,000 next year.”
Smith said he expects the total bond package to be around $400 million.
“That would be the highest we’ve ever had,” Smith said. “The speaker (of the House) has agreed on that, but the lieutenant governor would have to agree on it, too. But this being an election year, I think it will go through.
“We’ve paid off about $300 million in bonds, so our bonded indebtedness is down to about 31 percent of what it could be,” he added. “So we’re actually in pretty good shape.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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