By Sean Dunlap
Years of behind-the-scenes wrangling to purchase some 150 acres along Franklin County’s Okhissa Lake shoreline for the development of a proposed conference center and resort bore fruit on Friday, July 16.
The Scenic Rivers Development Alliance formally announced it has acquired the property for the much-anticipated economic development project from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Forest Service.
“This was the step we had been hoping to complete so that we can continue moving ahead with plans for a 200-room lodge and a 1,000-person conference center,” SRDA Executive Director Joseph Parker said.
“Relationships with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Franklin County, the Town of Meadville, along with private companies like C Spire and Franklin Telephone Co., remain the key to this project.”
Parker also praised the leadership of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who sponsored a provision in the 2018 federal Farm Bill allowing the USDA to convey the property held by the National Forest Service to Scenic Rivers as part of the plans to develop Okhissa Lake to its fullest potential.
“Rural economic development for Southwest Mississippi has been and continues to be at the top of Sen. Hyde-Smith’s agenda,” Parker said. “We greatly appreciate her efforts every step of the way in helping us get to this point in the process.”
Hyde-Smith called Friday’s announcement “wonderful news” and a crucial step in bringing jobs and economic development to the region.
“I’ve long been invested in this project, and I am eager to see the economic benefits it will bring to this region,” she noted.
“I am also very grateful to the Forest Service and (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack for following through on this.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Guest also praised the news of the land acquisition by Scenic Rivers and said rural development such as this is key to the state’s overall economic health.
“The Okhissa Lake project has brought together key players from the public and private sectors in a unified goal to make Southwest Mississippi an even better place to live, worship and raise a family,” Guest added. “It’s been an honor to work with them towards this goal.”
Parker said work on the lodge and conference center, which will also house a variety of workforce training platforms, is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of this year, while the proposed lodge will serve as a home base for visitors wishing to enjoy the great outdoors in Southwest Mississippi.
In addition to construction plans, he said SRDA will also continue its partnership with the National Forest Service to identify existing outdoor recreation activities available on and around federal lands near Okhissa Lake.
“It has been a pleasure working on a project that has enjoyed such widespread support — from the governor’s office to the mayor’s office,” Parker continued.
“We’re appreciative for the local legislators who sponsored bond bills to fund the purchase of the land with the support of Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoseman and Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn.”
Prior to the conclusion of its 2021 regular session, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 2971 — better known as this year’s “bond bill.”
The measure included language allowing for the issuance of general obligation bonds by the state to assist SRDA with the acquisition of the land for the proposed facility.
In addition, Parker publicly thanked other members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Reps. Steven Palazzo, Trent Kelly and Bennie Thompson, for supporting the effort.
Members of the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance include Franklin, Pike, Amite County, Wilkinson and Walthall counties and the City of McComb. The alliance seeks to promote outdoor recreation and tourism in Southwest Mississippi.
“A shared vision among public and private stakeholders will allow Scenic Rivers to bring this project to fruition, as originally envisioned by local planners and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service,” Franklin County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Jones said following Friday’s announcement.
Parker and Jones noted SRDA has been consulting with hospitality professionals from across the nation on the project with a goal of assembling the best development team possible to see the effort through to its completion.
USDA officials have assured Hyde-Smith of their agency’s continued cooperation on this project as part of President Joe Biden’s outdoor access initiatives.
“While we still have a way to go before we turn the first key, the journey to where we are now has been nothing short of amazing,” Parker said. “It truly is great to see so many people working together and sharing in a common goal.”
The concept of developing the lake to its fullest potential is nothing new — dating back to the early 2000s when the National Forest Service began studying the idea and issued multiple RFPs (requests for proposals) in trying to get someone interested in developing amenities at the site with little long-term success.
Scenic Rivers and its partners, however, have successfully moved the process forward to the point that planning and reality are moving ever closer to an intersection, according to Parker.