A public-private consortium will kick off comprehensive development planning efforts at a news conference today for a 200-room lodge, 1,000-person conference center and related amenities on 150 acres of land in the scenic Homochitto National Forest near Lake Okhissa in southwest Mississippi.
The land purchase was authorized following Congress’ passage of the farm bill last month and gives the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance (SRDA), a coalition of local governments in five counties, the opportunity to acquire and develop the property into a destination location for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, clubs, businesses and regional organizations.
“I’m thrilled the Okhissa Lake provision has been enacted into law. The 2018 Farm Bill sets the stage for us to pursue the full potential of this wonderful asset. There are many steps to go, and it will take everyone working together to make it a reality,” said U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. The Mississippi Republican inserted language into the bill to authorize the acquisition.
Representatives from SRDA, educators, business groups and local, state and federal government officials attended a news conference and lauded plans to jump start the project, which is expected to boost tourism, jobs, education and economic development efforts in the region.
“This region has some of the best natural and economic assets in the state, but we are sometimes overlooked because of our sparse population,” said Joseph Parker, executive director of SRDA, an independent state entity started several years ago as a branch of the Pike County Economic Development District. “That’s all about to change dramatically with this project.”
Parker said supporters are planning to complete the land purchase and fund the project, which includes a lodge, conference center, swimming pool, marina, boardwalk and overlook, through a variety of public and private sources, including state and federal funds and private donations.
Architectural plans and renderings for the project already have been completed by Jack Allin, a principal with the Jackson-based architectural firm of Wier, Boerner and Allin Architects. Neel-Schaffer, an engineering firm, has completed preliminary work on water and sewer services.
Organizers hope to use the development to expand statewide an award-winning chess program begun in Franklin County in 2015 that has won national acclaim as one of the most successful elementary school recreational and educational programs of its kind in the country. Chess teaches critical thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills that can be applied in education and business.
“There are many skills that our students learn from playing chess that can easily be applied to the classroom and their lives,” said Dr. Jeff Bulington, who teaches chess to Franklin County elementary school children. “The thing I love most about chess is that no matter your age, race, socioeconomic level or your physical build, you can be successful at the game.”
Bulington said the lodge and conference center could pave the way for expansion of the chess program statewide with the area hosting regional and statewide tournaments and competitions, attracting guests and generating income for area hotels and restaurants. There is also the possibility that the facility could be the hub for a virtual online chess program.
The project also promises to jump start efforts to determine how the facilities could be used in conjunction with higher education research and development programs and workforce development initiatives tied to software development and information technology job training efforts.
Moving southwest Mississippi forward with tourism, economic development and education – Page 2
“There are efforts underway by the public and private sectors in our state to close the skills gap and get more workers into the pipeline for sorely-needed coding and information technology related jobs,” said Co-Lin Community College President Dr. Jane Hulon. “We are excited to be a part of this project and look forward to working to strengthen our workforce development infrastructure.”
Meadville Mayor Lane Reed said the region has many assets besides its natural beauty, including the award-winning chess program. “We’re very proud of our community and are grateful for the rich quality of life we enjoy. That’s why we want to share it with the rest of the state,” he said.
Reed’s perspective is shared by James L. Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, who believes the project could help boost workforce development and natural resource-based jobs.
“Mississippi is a global leader in the production, design, and manufacture of products, and the providing of services, related to the outdoors. We produce a variety of wood products, camouflage, game calls, boats, ammunition, guided hunting and fishing trips, and the list goes on. Growth in these economic sectors is creating a demand for highly skilled workers. This conference center will be in the perfect location – the heart of one of the most scenic and resource-rich areas of our nation – to facilitate workforce training for natural resource-based jobs. All of Mississippi, but especially the Southwest part of our state, has a great opportunity to help improve upon Mississippi’s excellent climate for outdoor-related businesses, and put Mississippians to work doing what they love,” Cummins said.
One critical element tied to the success of the project, which is in a sparely populated area next to a national forest, will be a robust telecommunications infrastructure. C Spire CEO Hu Meena said his company is committed to continue its efforts to aggressively deploy broadband infrastructure throughout the state, including the southwest region, to support efforts to improve economic development, education, jobs and quality of life for everyone.
For more information about the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance, visit www.visitscenicrivers.com. To learn more about the Franklin Chess Center and the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation, visit www.franklinchess.com.