$2.7B Riverbend Project Stalled; Several Hurdles Remain

Wed March 12, 2008 - Southeast Edition
CEG




WALLS, Miss. (AP) Walls Mayor Gene Alday said he’s not sitting around waiting for construction to begin on the stalled $2.7 billion Riverbend Crossing development.

By now, had the Riverbend project gone forward as expected, roads and bridges would be in the engineering phase and city officials would be initiating annexation plans, not to mention hiring new police and fire personnel.

“There is a lot of planning involved in something like this,” Alday said. “There are a lot of issues that you have to take up. This is not a baby project. By now, we would have had to do the research to find money for cars and police. We would have had to have started a new fire station.”

Even after developers were given a three-month extension to get their financing together, work still has not begun on the project.

“I think they [the developers] ran into financial difficulties and they are trying to work through it,” Alday said.

Only two years remain before the $173 million of incentives approved in 2006 by the Mississippi Legislature expire if construction is not well under way. According to state officials, 2010 is the ultimate deadline for the project.

Alday said the city has plans to annex 2 mi. to the north, an area that includes the Delta Bluffs subdivision.

Even with the state incentives package, the Town of Walls would have to pony up a tidy sum in order to improve infrastructure, said to Alday.

“It will still be a lot of out of pocket expense for us,” Alday said.

State Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said he has talked with Riverbend developers and they remain optimistic the project can get back on track.

“Nothing has changed as far as they are concerned,” Davis said. “They are still moving forward. At least that’s the way we ended our conversation.”

Riverbend developers still do not have all 4,500 acres (1,800 ha) needed for the project.

So far only 60 acres (24 ha) of the 4,500-acre development has been purchased for the proposed upscale residential community and entertainment development on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Riverbend developers have sought option extensions on about 200 acres (81 ha) of the 4,500 acres required for key portions of the project.

About one-fourth of the Riverbend property involves land currently owned by Entergy Mississippi.

Aspen Investments LLC owns the lion’s share of Riverbend property or more than 2,200 acres (890 ha) purchased from Prudential in late 2005. The sole owner of Aspen Investments LLC is Jennifer Smith, a resident of Jonesboro, Ark.

The land deal to acquire all 4,500 acres of the Riverbend property is estimated to cost $35 million.

Technically, Riverbend developers say they met a state imposed June 1 deadline by securing just enough land to begin engineering and exploratory work. A subsequent State Attorney General’s opinion joined an opinion by Mississippi Development Authority officials that California developer Bill Phillips and his team had met the deadline.

Six months ago, a financial firm in New York representing Phillips allegedly pulled out of the Riverbend deal.

In September 2007, Phillips and his development team had selected another financial lender for the project.

A year earlier the Mississippi Legislature approved $23 million in infrastructure funds to construct utilities, roads and bridges to the Riverbend site.

According to the state’s negotiated deal, the $23 million in funds were off the table if developers didn’t begin construction by June 1, 2007. The attorney general’s opinion, rendered after that deadline passed, has settled that issue, at least for now.

Riverbend has proposed building a $30 million aquarium, three luxury hotels and four signature golf courses among other amenities. Developers plan to build more than 9,500 homes on the site. Additionally, commercial shops also are planned. Walls officials anticipate 30,000 new residents by the time the project is completely built out within 10 to 15 years.