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Riverbend developers tout plan to Miss. lawmakers

Private developers are trying to sell lawmakers on plans to transform 4,500 acres of northwest Mississippi cotton fields into a riverside development with upscale hotels, golf courses, music clubs and residential villages with a wide range of housing.

Their request from the state? A promise of $23 million for roads, water and sewer lines, plus another $150 million in tourism tax rebates from the project over the first 10 years.

Legislators will consider the incentives, plus two projects for the coast and one for the city of Magee, during a special session that starts at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The two committees that handle tax and bond bills — House Ways and Means and Senate Finance — met on Wednesday to hear presentations about the Riverbend Crossing proposal in DeSoto County.

Chris Gouras, a public finance consultant, said the $2.7 billion project would be developed over 15 years.

Bill Phillips, head of California-based Phillips Development Co., said the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer entertainment district in Riverbend would complement, rather than compete with, the nine casinos in nearby Tunica County. He said the clubs in Riverbend Crossing could become “Beale Street south” — a reference to the famed music district in nearby Memphis.

“We do what the casinos can’t do. To them, we add the third day, the fourth day stay,” said Phillips, whose company also helped develop Disneyland Paris and The Woodlands, an upscale planned community in Texas.

The Riverbend project would be bordered by the U.S. 61 on the east, the Tunica-DeSoto County line on the south, the Mississippi River on the west and Star Landing Road in the north. It would run about 4-1/2 miles along the river and 3-1/2 miles along U.S. 61.

The site also is near the developing Interstate 69, which eventually is designed to be a Mexico-to-Canada route.

Rep. Clint Rotenberry, R-Mendenhall, said he and his relatives have been visiting the Delta for years. He thanked the developers for seeing DeSoto County as a “promised land.”

“Even with all these casinos up there, I could not envision those cotton fields being developed for another 30 years,” Rotenberry said.

The developers said they would set aside 100 acres for school sites. DeSoto is one of the fastest growing counties in Mississippi and already is struggling to open enough new classrooms to keep up with an influx of students.

Only a governor can call a special session and only he can set the agenda. This is the first time Gov. Haley Barbour has summoned lawmakers back to the Capitol since the 2006 regular session ended in April. He called five special sessions in 2005.

Also on the agenda for the session:

— Proposals to help coastal communities whose tax bases were crippled by Hurricane Katrina last Aug. 29.

— A plan to reduce the tax on modular housing from its current 7 percent to 3 percent.

Manufactured housing, or mobile homes, already are taxed at 3 percent. Barbour said modular houses typically are made to meet more stringent codes than mobile homes, and encouraging the use of modular homes could help the coast with its Katrina recovery.

— A plan to let the city of Magee issue $25 million in bonds for expansion of the local hospital.