Last week, city, county and state officials gathered at the base of the old Highway 82 bridge, heralding the state Department of Transportation”s $2 million grant to renovate the long-shuttered structure into a pedestrian park.
Since that day, the bridge has presided over somewhat troubled waters. Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said that the county was “blind-sided” by the fact that the county, and the city, must each put up $200,000 in matching funds to receive the state grant — this despite the fact that the county agreed to the arrangement four years ago when the city first pursued the project. Supervisors, this week, openly questioned whether they were still on the hook for the money.
And, Mayor Robert Smith and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem”s now-infamous City Hall fist fight centered around the bridge — Karriem placed discussion of the bridge on the City Council agenda, apparently sooner than Smith, an advocate of the project, was ready to talk about details.
Despite these wrinkles, and the associated price tag, we believe the project is a worthy one and should move forward. The bridge, now gated off, rusting and overgrown, sits at Columbus” “front door,” and spans the entrance to the Columbus Riverwalk, the hugely successful and scenic walking/biking path. Soon, work will begin on the Burns Bottom soccer park project, which will connect to the Riverwalk and further enhance this space. And, the area is bordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land — 158 acres of natural habitat running through the Riverwalk to the Tombigbee River.
The bridge would be a centerpiece to this sprawling recreation center and natural habitat, and a one-of-a-kind amenity no other city in Mississippi could boast.
The bridge would be more than a recreation area — if done properly, it could be a premier gathering place for visitors and citizens of Columbus. An elevated park spanning the Tombigbee River would make an impressive backdrop for any number of events, not just athletic pursuits.
And, any project that enhances the quality of downtown and draws people to the city”s center serves to keep the area vibrant. It could be a destination for visitors as well as locals. It would be a unique economic engine.
Some have argued that during the recession, city and county resources should go to other needs. We agree that basic infrastructure needs — such as roadwork and flood control — are sorely needed in the city. In a perfect world, we”d have an additional $2 million from the state to put towards them. However, this money is earmarked for the bridge project. (MDOT has come through for the city”s roads as well. For example, the repaving of Military Road, funded federally and administered by MDOT, is ready to start. And the repaving of Highway 182 from the 82 exit to the Alabama state line — right down Main Street — is budgeted for and in the works.)
We are pleased with the success of the Riverwalk. And the soccer complex, as planned, will provide a much-needed recreation area while keeping the natural beauty of Burns Bottom intact. The city and county have proven they can find common ground to fund these and other unique projects. The bridge project has been long-delayed and has had a rocky restart, but we hope our leaders have the vision to recognize its potential, and see it through.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.