Commentary by David Howell

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 24, 2011

It’s hard to imagine the force of 90 miles per hour wind that swept across Sardis Lake Wednesday evening, July 13, damaging the marina and more than 30 boats.

But another storm that has been brewing for several years has grown even stronger and threatens to derail the ambitious development project at the lake.

Dubbed the “Sardis Lake Project,” it has been chugging along since the late 1980s with millions of federal tax dollars invested during this time.

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This storm has several contributing cells – lack of leadership at the city or county level, a sluggish economy, and strong opposition from the Delta Council, a powerful 18-county alliance that promotes agricultural and economic development in northwestern Mississippi.

Ironically Panola County is one of the counties represented in this council.

Last year the Delta Council orchestrated several meetings to question this proposed economic development project in Panola County. The questions quickly turned to concerns, and now this powerful alliance is lobbying to stop the project.


    Skipper Marina manager Rick Jameson said it best last week, when interviewed by the Greenwood Commonwealth.

“Horrible miscommunication.”

Commonwealth Editor Tim  Kalich was looking for someone supporting the project to counter comments from Delta Council Executive Director Chip Morgan.

Morgan had spoken at a recent Rotary Club meeting in Greenwood and continued to alarm Delta residents with his concerns about the project.

“There’s nothing any of us would like better than to see economic development in any town in the Delta,” Morgan told Rotarians at that Greenwood meeting. “The problem is that we can’t accept that people will build $100 million in condos and not want to see water. If they see water, we don’t have storage to keep water off Greenwood, Mississ-ippi.”

To make a long story short, Morgan believes the U.S. Corps of Engineers will change their rule curve, which mandates lake levels, to accommodate the developers.

Jameson countered that the proposed resort center would have no impact on the Corps’ ability to manage the lake to maximize flood control.

The site for the proposed development, he told the Commonwealth, is in the southeastern corner of the lake, where the Corps of Engineers almost a decade ago turned a previously dry cove into a trapped pool by erecting a levee. Water in that area stays at a stable level year-round, he said, and isn’t affected by what the Corps of Engineers does at the lake’s upper elevations.

“The lake’s ability to withhold water is identical to how it’s always been,” Jameson said. “If the development comes in, there still will be no change in their ability to maintain water flow.”

Jameson is dead on.

Lake fluctuation was identified as a major hurdle early in the project. In order for the project to become viable, the marina and resort would have to be operational during winter months, when the water level is extremely low, and during high water levels at other seasons.

The solution was two-fold and expensive. First, more than $5 million in federal funding was obtained to dredge a portion of the lake that would access the marina located at Shady Cove. This work allowed boats to access the slips at the marina year-round.

The second portion of the development, which has also been completed, was to build a levee across Shady Cove. This levee creates a separate pool that does not fluctuate with the main lake level. This pool will give the resort waterfront property all year.

Again, the problem is there is no leadership from the city or county to combat these accusations by the Delta Council.

Meanwhile Morgan told Rotarians that the Delta Council is at an impasse with Sardis officials pushing the project. While normally the organization tries to find points of compromise when there are conflicting interests, he said that doesn’t appear possible in this case.

It is a shame that this “horrible miscommunication” could squash this ambitious development plan that includes condos and single-family homes, an 18-hole golf course, and a hotel and conference center, in what is now a lightly populated area south of the lake.

That said, it is only fair to look at the other factor in this storm, a weak economy. Even if the Delta Council had not taken aim at this project, millions of dollars in private investment may never materialize.

One thing is for sure: This long-range plan only survived with the help of our state’s Senators and Representatives. The late Jamie Whitten, Trent Lott, Roger Wicker and Bennie Thompson have all worked to secure federal funding and support at various stages of the project.

Now  with this opposition from the Delta Council, you can bet Congressional support will disappear.

And those millions already spent? Sounds like another bridge to nowhere.

(David Howell is editor and publisher of The Southern Reporter, where this commentary was first published.)