It’s been a whirlwind year for the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance.
Since legislation in 2018 making it a state agency passed, it has taken over the Bogue Chitto Water Park, Quail Hollow Golf Course, Lake Walthall and Ethel Vance Park, among other facilities in southwest Mississippi — and brought a lot of money back to the area, Scenic Rivers director Joseph Parker told the McComb Exchange Club last week.
Scenic Rivers began with an interlocal agreement between the City of McComb and Pike and Amite counties in 2007 “when the economy was nationally taking a dip,” Parker said.
The concept behind the organization was to band local governments together as a regional force to promote economic development and lobby for government funding.
A former city administrator and recreation director for McComb, Parker recalled failed past efforts by city officials to seek state funds.
“When we go to Jackson and ask for those funds, it was a delegation from McComb asking for those funds,” he said. “There was 12 or 15 of us in the room asking for that money and very politely, the gentleman across the desk said, ‘Well, y’all get together and come ask for the money and you’ll have a better shot at getting it.’
“We heard the line, ‘I’m not saying you’ve been intentionally overlooked down there, but y’all have got to get together or you’re probably not going to receive these funds,’ “ Parker said.
The alliance includes Pike, Walthall, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties, and Parker said he’d like to see that expand to cover more of Southwest Mississippi in the hopes of elevating the area’s status and making it a bigger priority among budget minders and job creators.
Parker said local governments that signed on are already seeing a return on their investments. Pike County alone is getting more than $3 million in state bond funds for infrastructure improvements at the Gateway Industrial Park, Parker noted.
“Those were bond funds that Scenic Rivers requested to come back to the area,” he said.
Walthall County has spent $30,000 in membership dues over the past three years and has received $100,000 in funding, Parker said. Wilkinson County has spent $60,000 in dues and has received $200,000.
“The return on the investment is really good at this point in time,” Parker said. “Everybody is starting to see the benefit in working together in this region. It’s really important for us.”
Parker said Scenic Rivers took over the Bogue Chitto Water Park from Pike County, which had acquired the property after the previous owner, the Peal River Basin Development District, dissolved.
After that, Scenic Rivers took over the management of Quail Hollow Golf Course at Percy Quin State Park after the state park system struggled to turn a profit and had considered closing it.
“The state was going to shut it down and plant pine trees on it or do something else. That multimillion-dollar investment for our area and one of the largest attractors we have was going to go away,” Parker said.
Parker said Scenic Rivers’ management has changed the financial fortunes of those facilities.
“Both facilities were losing money. In high fashion they were losing money,” he said.
Parker said Scenic Rivers has already invested in improvements at both the water park and the golf course, including new campsites and greens. Parker said the golf course broke even this past fiscal year and he expects its financial condition to improve.
The most recent version of the federal Farm Bill has a provision allowing Scenic Rivers to buy land near Lake Okhissa in the Homochitto National Forest, with plans to build a convention center and other amenities. Parker said Scenic Rivers is awaiting the findings of a Dec. 13 feasibility report for that project.
Other state bond monies going to Scenic Rivers will enhance public access at Lake Walthall with new piers and walking trails, as well as improvements at Lake Mary, Parker said.
Taking care of these facilities is imperative for enhancing the area’s quality of life, Parker said.
“Our biggest draw that we have is the outdoors,” he said.
Parker noted that Southwest Mississippi counties are losing population while other areas of the state where local officials have banded together are doing considerably better.
“Everywhere else across the state, where a regional alliance has been formed, their population has been increasing,” he said. “Working together and promoting yourself is what other people have been doing.”