Developers to Begin Site Prep on 4,300 Acre Tract

Wed September 27, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



PENTON, MS (AP) Snow-white cotton was ripe for picking on Delta land that has been worked by three generations of John Graves’ family. In the distance, an overgrown pecan grove silently reclaimed remnants of Penton, MS, where Lake Cormorant resident Tom Koehler grew up.

The only signs of activity were cows grazing on the levee, an occasional dump truck on a run to a riverside stockpile of gravel, and a trickle of motorists taking a back road to the casinos. As pastoral as the scene appeared on a recent weekday, big-time changes are coming to this lightly populated expanse of southwest DeSoto County.

And it can’t come soon enough for landowners who have been waiting for years for something that would make their property worth more than farmland, valued at less than $1,000 an acre on the county’s tax rolls.

A California-based creator of giant planned communities expects to start moving dirt for $2.7-billion Riverbend Crossing before winter.

The state of Mississippi’s approval of a $173-million incentive package has cleared the way for developers to buy the 4,300 acres and start construction. The site takes advantage of a strategic location just north of Tunica’s Casino Center, where the Grand Casino beckons through the late-summer haze.

Riverbend plans call for a movie-themed entertainment park, hotels, golf courses and up to 9,500 homes spread around a series of lakes.

Under the bill passed by the Mississippi Legislature in a special session, the developer would lose state incentives if any of the land is used for gaming, a proposition that has been rejected repeatedly by DeSoto County voters.

Two big corporations, Entergy and Prudential, are the major players in the Riverbend deal, with area holdings exceeding 4,000 acres.

Koehler and the Graves family are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, totaling a few hundred acres.

But the family-owned tracts are smack in the middle of the developer’s plan for a new city of 30,000 people just north of the Tunica County line.

“For someone to come along with a pretty good offer, it was a godsend to us,” said Graves, whose family moved to DeSoto County from Newbern, TN, in 1936.

His father traveled the Delta cleaning seeds for farmers and got to know the previous owner, who ran a store in the Tunica County community of Clack. The Graves family rented and later bought the farm, now located on Graves Road between U.S. 61 and the Mississippi River levee.

Family members later learned that an ancestor, a land speculator, briefly owned the land in 1836.

The family homeplace on the site is long gone, destroyed by fire. Graves lives in unincorporated Lake Cormorant, near Star Landing Road, and two of his sons, Jack and Bob Graves, tend to the cotton crop. A third son, Joe Graves, is farm manager for a nearby sod and cotton farm.

John Graves has seen dreams of a big profit on the land shattered in the past.

“Forty years or so ago, they drilled an oil well out there,” he said, pointing across Lake Cormorant Bayou from his home. “We thought we were going to get rich then.”

The undisclosed offer from Phillips Development was the only way the land could be easily sold. Because it’s owned by families of Graves and his siblings, the land would have been nearly impossible to subdivide and sell.

Graves, a retired farmer, likes what he’s seen of the Phillips plan.

“Since they’ve gotten funding, I feel like it will go through” he said.

He credited state Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, for pushing through the legislation granting the developer $23 million in state bonds for infrastructure and up to $150 million in tourism sales tax rebates over 10 years.

“I don’t think this would have ever materialized if it wasn’t for Doug Davis,” Graves said. “You tend to think of yourself, but this is an important thing for this county, and this county owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Koehler, a retired farmer, is part owner of a 50- to 100-ft.-wide former Illinois Central railroad right of way that slices through the property from Graves Road south to the county line.

He grew up in Penton, where his uncle had built a home. The remains of Penton include a cluster of decaying buildings under the canopy of pecan trees and an abandoned cotton gin.

Koehler said, “We’ve seen a lot of crazy things come through here. Some got realized and some didn’t.”

Koehler and a partner bought abandoned railroad land on the east side of Old 61 about 15 years ago. They granted a purchase option to Phillips’ group about a month ago, he said.

Koehler, who lives with his elderly mother in Lake Cormorant, said, “I don’t know if this thing’s going to go yet or not. I’m not going to get excited until I see the money.”