Jon Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, talks about the proposed project as Dwan Brown, founder of P3 Group, Inc., awaits to speak at a meeting earlier this year. Now that city leaders have given their support for the sports and recreational complex, community members continue to sort through the details.

A planned $52 million sports and recreational complex, which has the backing of the city of Clarksdale, has sparked debate over whether the Delta town can support or even needs the project.

The project, the Corey L. Moore Sports and Recreational Complex, will be overseen by an urban renewal agency whose members were chosen by the city’s government.

Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy
Dwan Brown, developer

Backers, who include Mayor Chuck Espy and developer Dwan Brown, describe it as a win-win proposition that will inject much-needed revenue into the city’s coffers and not cost local taxpayers a dime, adding that some of the country’s top firms are involved in the effort to bring the tourist attraction to Clarksdale.

“I think the critical component is that you have a national law firm, a national real estate development firm, national construction firm, national management company, you have a national bond underwriter, and you have a bonds purchaser, will all have to satisfy themselves on different levels that the project is put together structurally, appropriately and that it’s a viable, sustainable project,” Brown said.

“I think the most important thing is that this project is not a simple project.  … To try and understand (this project) in a ten minute presentation or newspaper article does not do justice to the eight months I’ve put into developing this project.”

Espy added: “That’s why all the commissioners responded ‘where were you guys eight months ago, six months ago, five months ago?’ but everyone who has been at the table understands exactly structurally what we’re doing.”

But community members question the sustainability of the project that includes a 120-room hotel, a 750-seat conference center, a large swimming area that features a smaller water park, a zipline, a rock climbing wall and five baseball and softball fields.

Longtime Clarksdale resident Ray Sykes mentioned that there are various parks in each neighborhood that are in desperate need of upkeep and there’s nothing being done about it.

“We abandoned those parks. … What are we doing? We can’t maintain our own parks, but we gonna be able to maintain other parks? Each community can walk to those parks, but can’t nobody walk down that highway (to the proposed location of the complex).”

Although locals are encouraged to visit the facilities, it is still a tourism attraction, said Brown. He placed emphasis on the youth sports tournament as a highlight and “tour generator.”

Are there similar projects in other regions of the state that are working?

Brown gave examples of  Grand Paradise Water Park in Collins, which cost around $5 million and Pep’s Point Water Park in Hattiesburg.

“There are a lot of larger failed water park projects out there, and so we’ve been very sensitive to keep the price down to keep the cost of admission low so that the locals can use it … and people can have very inexpensive vacation trips,” Brown said.

Questions of if a feasibility study was done was also a concern for some, but Brown said to the urban renewal agency, the Quality of Life Commission, that an internal feasibility study was done.

For the 20-room Travelers Hotel set to open in downtown Clarksdale in early 2019, Chuck Rutledge, one of the hotel’s developers, mentioned that Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc., conducted their market study, which was a little over $7,000.

“It showed us what the market is currently and what kind of occupancy and room rate we could get, so we based the project and financing on that,” Rutledge said. “We did tax credits, so we were able to attract tax credit equity through the sale of federal and state historic tax credits.”

Residents wanted to know where they can see the feasibility study for the sports complex center.

Clarksdale resident Ray Sykes

“The feasibility study is something that stood out. You can have the best plan in the world and again, we haven’t seen the plan. This plan is so vague that nobody understands it, and at least if there was a feasibility study done with the public … to show us this is what we looked at, this is how we know this is gonna work … ,” said Sykes.

“Although we can build it, the feasibility should show whether we can maintain it or not. … The infrastructure of the city is steady falling. I wouldn’t mind a tax increase to fix a sewage line in the city. I wouldn’t mind a tax increase to look at our water and see if its drinkable water. But to invest in something that we don’t know, that concerns me.”

Carla Kyle, a native of Clarksdale, argued that one of the most poverty-stricken Mississippi towns, Tunica, prospered with the help of their casinos, but are now seeing that most of the prosperity wasn’t sustainable.

“(This complex) is not gonna help twenty years down the road. I guarantee you. That’s the problem,” Kyle said. “(Tunica) in a few years will probably be back as the lowest on the poverty line, and I don’t want to see that happen to Clarksdale.”

But backers of the complex envisions sports tournaments as the catalysts for development.

Quavantae McGregory, Clarksdale native and baseball player for Mississippi Valley State University, said there’s a need for youth tournament attractions in the Delta.

“(The complex) will be a new location in a long time for youth to participate in sports. As of now, majority of youth sports leagues in Clarksdale are often moved from one location to another simply because there’s no main domain for youth sports,” he said. “Secondly, it would offer more job opportunities in the area in the specific field of sports and recreation.”

This project won’t “ride off the backs of locals,” though, said Brown, and “the local youth teams, the local citizens, would have access to the facility and have access to the water park, but let it be no mistake, this project is a tourism project.”

He mentioned based on the market, with a drive time ranging from an one hour to four hours, this facility hopes to accommodate more than 200,000 visitors a year.

“I got excited as soon as I heard about it. Of course there’s going to be jobs,” said Jamarlon Fair, a business owner and native of Friars Point. “You’re going to bring people to the city and also raise revenue for the city as well. You think about a lot of tourists that’s going to come to the town and see those things they didn’t even know Coahoma County had to offer, so I think it’s a very good thing for the whole county.”

Despite the opposition of some, Brown said their goal isn’t to gain 100 percent acceptance from everyone.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about politics, something that’s done by a particular administration. … I think the overwhelming response of people elected Espy because he would bring about change, and they thought he would take a fresh set of ideas and go in a different direction than in the past,” he added.

Coahoma County Supervisor Derrell Washington

Through text messages, calls, emails, and social-media posts, Brown said he’s received positive responses about the potential of this project.

Not disregarding the recollections of the past, there hasn’t been anything done to move the city forward, said Brown, as he aids the mayor in his vision for what Clarksdale could be.

“We know over the last thirty years – we can go back longer than that – there has been no substantial efforts made to stop the declining population in Clarksdale, to increase the tax base, to help eradicate poverty, to increase quality of life for the citizens, there has been no efforts made, and so what we do know for a fact is that doesn’t work,” Brown said.

“This is an opportunity using proven methods and systems, best practices, qualified individuals to deliver hope and opportunity to a region that’s basically been forgotten about.”

Kyle says that for a project of this magnitude to be successful in this small town, it will require a strong community working together.

“I think the town would have to come together, and I think the community will have to come together and meet with the people who vote and come to a conclusion and let everyone be involved in it since it affects everybody there,” Kyle said.

“I really believe it takes everybody, and I just think there’s a better way to do this.”

Derrell Washington, one of the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, said, “It’s a great plan if it’s going to do what they say it’s going to do and create the jobs they say it’s going to create, then I think it’s a great idea for the city of Clarksdale as well as Coahoma County.”

Part III of this series. Read Part I here, and Part II here.

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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.