CLARKSDALE – On the campaign trail last year, candidate Chuck Espy promised the citizens of Clarksdale he would enhance their quality of life by creating a state of the art recreational center that would not cost taxpayers one cent. Many people thought he was only selling dreams, while others felt he had vision.

After eight months in office, Mayor Espy says his vision is not a dream anymore – it’s on its way to becoming a reality.

“I do not like — as a person in office — to talk about an election, but there were many people during this campaign trail who thought I was running on just raw pipe dreaming,” said Espy.

“We put together a comprehensive plan that took us over two years to put together,” Espy said. “People from California, New York weighed in on this project, and people all across the state of Mississippi and even some of our friends in Tennessee.”

The $50 million dollar sports and recreational complex took a big step forward Monday when the Board of Mayors and Commissioners voted unanimously to create an urban renewal agency that will oversee the project.

“Over the last eight months, I have worked tirelessly to develop a workable plan to develop a world class sports complex and recreational complex for the city of Clarksdale,” said Dwan Brown, from P3 Group Inc., a development consultant firm advising the city.

This project will include a 120-room hotel, a conference center, water park, zipline, rock climbing wall, five synthetic turf baseball and softball fields and a small two megawatt solar farm, according to Brown.

The complex will be called the Corey L. Moore Sports and Recreation Complex, in honor of Corey Lenard Moore, a Clarksdale native who thelped to establish the Boys and Girls Club in Clarksdale and served under Rep. Bennie Thompson as an intern on the Congressional Homeland Security Committee, said Brown.

The location is the Sunbelt Industrial Park, behind the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce. The industrial park is owned by the Economic Development Authority.

Map of the Sunbelt Industrial Park with the proposed facility outlined in pink. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

The cost of the project will be financed with “non-recourse urban renewal bonds, other subsidies in renewable energy tax credits and grants” and run by an at-risk private operator, said Brown.

He went on to say the project will bring $70 million dollars into the local economy, employ 875 people during the construction phase and create 190 permanent and part-time jobs.

Under the mayor’s Facebook live feed of the meeting, viewers asked more questions about how the project will be funded. In the comment section, Brown noted that the $50 million construction cost and ongoing operational costs will be subsidized based on existing programs.

Brown provided clarification by stating that “a private investment group will be executing a 30-year lease and assume complete responsibility for operating and maintaining the project. … The urban renewal agency is leasing the project to a private investment group.”

State and federal incentives will provide equity to cover a portion of the $50 million development cost of the project, a solar farm will offset electricity costs and reimbursements from the state will offset operational costs, Brown said.

During the mayoral election campaign between Espy and former mayor Bill Luckett, many voters said they didn’t believe this type of center could happen in this city because of the costs to citizens. But Brown insisted this project would not cost the citizens or the city any money because it is a public-private partnership.

Those involved in this partnership include Hunt Company, CORE Construction, Chasm Companies, PA, IMS Engineers and Butler Snow Law Firm. Representatives from each entity were present at the meeting.

Since the city government will not oversee this project, Brown asked the board to “reject the failed policies of the past and vote today to take the first step forward to restoring hope to this community” by creating an urban renewal agency titled the Quality of Life Commission to oversee development. This agency, with five board members appointed by commissioners along with the mayor, will oversee the project.

Each board member will serve a five-year term without compensation for services, according to Mississippi statute. Anyone can be appointed as long as they reside within the area.

This agency must be created in order to move the project forward, Espy said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. The next phase will be to submit documents for the urban renewal tax credits.

Commissioner Willie Turner appointed Adrian Allen and Espy appointed Rosalyn Griffin. The other three commissioners said they needed more time.

“For those who want to understand what that is and how that looks, today we will be asking the board to create an agency, an urban renewal agency which is done throughout the state of Mississippi – Jackson, Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Pascagoula – most people are familiar with JRA, that’s a regional authority which is Jackson’s urban renewal agency,” said Brown.

“This agency has the statutory authorization to issue urban renewal bonds and the bonds do not create any debt obligation or any recourse by the city and that’s by statute.”

To move the project forward, Brown said the at-risk private operator who will fund the operation will pay all expenses required to get the project going.

“The city does not have any role in that so anything that is required for this project ultimately the at-risk operator will cover,  so we feel from day one this is the mechanism that was most appropriate to make this project work in Clarksdale,” he said.

“We know what has happened to this city over the last three decades using antiquated processes and techniques. We can continue to run in place for as long as you desire but we still won’t get anywhere,” said Brown.

“We can simply look around the state and the country to see urban renewal agencies being successfully used to rebuild communities — after all, that’s why the statutory authority granted municipalities to pursue this avenue.”

Unanimously, all commissioners voiced their support for the project. However, it took more than a skip and a hop to get others on board.

This is a “convoluted,” or complex, financing and development structure that requires a lot of expertise, said Mac Crank, of the mayor’s office. 

“Today, Mr. (Dwan) Brown brought those people to the table and is ready to advance this to something actionable. …It looks like a good project and it’s not obligating the city at all. It’s creating a new authority that will actually spearhead the program,” said Crank.

Jon Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce stands at podium to address his initial concerns about the proposed project as Dwan Brown, of P3 Group, Inc., awaits to present his plan. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Jon Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, said at first, he was skeptical of this venture. He said he got a call out of the blue from Brown wanting to know more about purchasing property, the Sunbelt Industrial Park.

Levingston asked Brown if he wanted to bring a factory here, and he responded with “something just as good,” said Levingston. In this conversation, Brown went on to talk about the plans for the complex, and Levingston inquired if this type of project would be sustainable for Clarksdale. Brown responded with yes.

Putting together a team of professionals, not wanting the city to participate, and using “private equity” were red flags for Levingston, but after talking with the group, his mind was put to ease a little.

“I was pretty skeptical of that, and I haven’t seen any evidence of it until one day I came here and we had a conference call with some people all over the country,” said Levingston. “I was absolutely amazed at the team of professionals that Mr. (Dwan) Brown and his colleagues have put together to take from conception to a real plan close to reality of what could possibly be here.”

Commissioner Bo Plunk stressed that the board has talked to multiple lawyers and they all said this will not cost the city one dollar.

Commissioner Ken Murphey echoed the point: “We’ve been pretty stagnant here for a while… I’ve done my homework and it’s not costing the city any money. … Our children deserve this, and I’m supporting it guys, 100 percent.”

“This is a win-win situation for all of us and as my colleagues have said it will not cost the taxpayers of Clarksdale not one cent,” said Commissioner Ed Seals. “I would like to commend the mayor and Mr. (Dwan) Brown for the leadership they have demonstrated.”

“Regardless of what some of these folks think of Mr. (Dwan) Brown or Mr. Espy, excuse my French, but they have worked their asses off for this city. They really have,” said Plunk. “I’ve served under two mayors. Chuck is the third, in nine years, he’s the first one that’s got vision.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.