Recreation Investment Or Waste Of Tax Dollars?

A former candidate for mayor in Ocean Springs once called it "the worst real estate deal on record."

Buying the 124 acres of land near Highway 57 and Highway 90 was easy. Getting the necessary permits to build a sports complex is not.

That process has involved a trio of consultants, numerous delays, and a letter to the governor, asking his help in getting the project permit.

Ocean Springs needs more recreation facilities. Most everyone agrees with that.

But just where to locate new ball fields is the million dollar question. Or in this case, the almost $700,000 question.

That's how much money the city has invested in 124 acres of land near Highway 57 and Highway 90.

We visited the site with city Recreation Director Damian McKay.

"The community has been behind this the whole time. up until the last couple of years. Now it's starting to fall off a little bit. People are getting frustrated," McKay said.

That frustration involves wetlands. City leaders knew when they agreed to buy the property that much of it was wetlands. But they had assurances from a wetlands consultant that the project could be permitted.

However, getting that necessary permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers has been more difficult and time consuming than anyone imagined.

"I cannot imagine what takes it so long. I mean, I understand it's wetlands and we're trying to protect the wetlands and I'm all for that, but come on. Shell Landing right down the street from here built on the marsh. What's the difference?" McKay asked.

Outgoing Mayor Seren Ainsworth has defended the project for years and repeatedly said the city was "getting close" to the necessary permit approval. He calls it the most frustrating process he's ever been through.

We asked Ainsworth if there has ever been a point over the years when he thought the city should just cut its losses?

"The length of time, yes. I mean personally I've said there's a certain time when we're going to have to say, we're going to have to cut this process off and go in a different direction. But I'm not quite there yet. Even though I'm frustrated with it, I feel like we're getting closer," Ainsworth said.

The DMR's executive director agrees.

"The DMR, the DEQ, the Corps of Engineers, as well as Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have sat around the table, talked about that project an awful lot. And we are all of the opinion that that project is one that can and should go forward now," Dr. William Walker said.

The city bought the property back in October of 1998 for $3,000 an acre. Since then, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent, but nothing has been built yet.

Much of the money has gone to engineers and consultants. The board of aldermen hired a Vicksburg-based firm in 2001.

In December of 2001, the President of Solutions Incorporated, Anna Schoonover, told WLOX News, "If we thought we would be able to assist them in obtaining a permit for development of that land for a recreational complex. And I reviewed the file and said 'yes.'"

But Schoonover hasn't said "yes" to our request for an interview. Anna Schoonover hasn't responded to our multiple E-mail messages and hasn't returned numerous phone calls to her Vicksburg office.

We want to know what her wetland consultant firm accomplished after receiving nearly $40,000 in taxpayer's money.

"I've always felt like we spent way too much money for consulting and engineering for that project. And we certainly should be much further along than we are now," former Alderman Larry Cosper said.

Cosper was the only alderman to vote against purchasing the property seven years ago. Though he agrees with the need for recreation, he says the city never had a plan to develop this property.

"We do not know what those roads are going to cost. We do not know what the construction out there is going to cost. We hear four million, we hear five million, we hear six million. We don't know."

Ward 1 Alderman John Gill supported buying the land and says the $700,000 spent so far is justified.

"I tell you what, you look at it this way. You take that acreage and divide it into that money and it'll be well spent. Because acreage on Highway 90 out there is going for like a million dollars an acre," Gill said.

The badly faded survey and property markers are a testament to just how long this wetlands issue has been dragging on in Ocean Springs. Though there's still much frustration, there also remains some optimism.

"I hope that within the next, I hate to say a time, but a couple of months, I hope that we get an announcement from the Corps that they're ready to permit phase one," Dr. Walker said.

"There's going to be something built out there. Now is it going to be a recreation facility or commercial development. Who knows?" Cosper said.

The recreation director is still counting on new ball fields.

"It's a shame it's taken this long to get something for the kids of Ocean Springs," McKay said.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently finished the public comment phase of the permit process.

On May 13th, the city requested a 30 day extension to respond to public concerns. So, it will be June 13th at the earliest before we hear anything more about permit approval for the project.