Vicksburg mayor wants $1.5 million in BP funds for tourism

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Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. hopes to collect $1.5 million in BP oil spill settlement funds for tourism projects within the city.

Flaggs, a first-term Democratic mayor who previously served 25 years in the Mississippi Legislature, said he hopes lawmakers will vote to disperse BP settlement money to all parts of the state.

In what will likely become an intense battle during the 2017 regular legislative session, lawmakers from the Coast, with no known exceptions and regardless of party affiliation, want the majority of the $750 million settlement to stay in the coastal counties.

Other state and local officials want to dip into the money for projects they deem necessary. For Vicksburg, the 16th largest city in the state, and one that relies heavily on tourism revenues from the Vicksburg National Military Park and casinos, Flaggs wants $1.5 million to place into a tourism fund.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs answers questions Monday at the Stennis Institute press club luncheon.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs answers questions Monday at the Stennis Institute press club luncheon.

“That BP money needs to go statewide,” Flaggs said Monday at the Stennis Press Club luncheon in Jackson. “The BP oil spill affected all of us. It stopped tourism on the Coast, but it stopped it all along the (Mississippi) river and Delta, too.”

The first portion of the BP settlement – $150 million – arrived in early July, after lawmakers in March earmarked $41 million of that check for specific projects within the coastal counties. The remainder – $109 million – is currently available and sitting in the state treasury. How that can be spent will be left to a legislative vote, Gov. Phil Bryant said in April. The question is likely to be addressed in the upcoming legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has hosted two of three scheduled town halls on the Coast to discuss uses for the BP money. Reeves, who has promised Coast residents that he will work to bring as much of the settlement to them as possible, has heard ideas from residents about how they would like to see the money spent.

Many lawmakers from the Coast have expressed concern about whether their fight for the majority of the funds will prevail. In the 2016 regular legislative session, a bill that would have allocated much of the settlement to repairing roads and bridges across the entire state passed handily in the House on a 101-20 vote. The bill later died.

Lawmakers have promised that similar bills will be introduced in 2017. As payments from BP trickle into the state treasury, the issue almost certainly cannot be put off another year. After this year’s $150 million check from BP, the state will receive payments of $40 million a year between 2019-2033.

BP is also paying $750 million to the federal government for use in mitigating environmental damage from the spill throughout the Gulf Coast region.

“The vast majority of the damages that occurred were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast … it’s the right thing to do,” Reeves said last month. “This is a challenge. This is not going to be easy. It’s going to take a joint effort for us to work with our colleagues and show them how, long term, it will benefit the entire state to grow the size of the economy in south Mississippi. What’s good for south Mississippi is good for all of Mississippi.”

Flaggs believes the tourism fund will continue to help the city of Vicksburg attract visitors to the city. In September, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the construction of a nearly $13 million water park near the outlet mall. The Mississippi Department of Transportation, with the Legislature’s approval, will begin construction on new roadways to better connect the outlet mall and water park to Interstate 20.

Flaggs also discussed other issues Monday:

• He did not clarify whether he would run for statewide office in 2019, though he said he is running for Vicksburg mayoral re-election in 2017. “You can’t run for two offices at the same time,” he said. “If an opportunity later presents itself for statewide office in 2019, I’ll consider it.”

• He believes Vicksburg should become the port destination to ship raw materials to the new Continental Tire plant in western Hinds County.

• He touted his conservative fiscal views, many of which he learned in his time in the Legislature, to point to Vicksburg’s recent financial success.