Questions linger over release of incentives for DeSoto project

Published 11:30 pm Saturday, June 2, 2007

A June 1 deadline for developers to secure land and financing for the Riverbend Crossing project in DeSoto County has passed but there are questions whether requirements were met to qualify for $173 million in state incentives.

Officials with the Mississippi Development Authority were not saying Friday whether the deadline was a major issue. There also was disagreement over exactly what the developer had to do before the deadline.

Phillips Development Co., of Newport Beach, Calif., expects to start moving dirt for $2.7 billion Riverbend Crossing before winter, officials said.

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The 4,600-acre site is just north of Tunica County’s Casino Center. The project calls for a movie-themed entertainment park, hotels, golf courses and up to 9,500 homes spread around a series of lakes.

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

Chris Gouras, a public finance consultant with the project, told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper that Phillips Development had spent about $7.5 million to acquire 60 acres near Walls. He said talks are ongoing on the remaining property.

Bill Phillips, the company president, said that Riverbend backers believed the incentive bill passed by Mississippi lawmakers last summer did not mean they were to acquire the land and start construction by Friday.

Phillips said they believe the bill called for development to begin by June 1 and that requirement had been met.

“We’ve been moving ahead for six months hot and heavy,” Phillips said. “We’re excited about continuing on. Our goal is to start construction within the next 45 to 60 days.”

State Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, who has pushed the project along with other community leaders, said, “Obviously, we all wish the project was further along than it is today, but we are where we are. I am satisfied this project is progressing.”

State Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, whose district includes part of the site, said he believed legislators intended for physical construction to begin by Friday.

“I’ve been told they’re moving dirt,” Mayo said Friday. “If they’re moving dirt, I feel like that would satisfy the deadline the Legislature set.”

The site is unpopulated, primarily planted in row crops, between U.S. 61 and the Mississippi River levee, just north of the Tunica County line.

Phillips said he spent the previous week with lawyers working on project financing.

“It’s a complicated process,” he said.

Phillips said he believes MDA officials “understand what we’re going through and all the work that’s under way.”

Davis said the “fall back” provisions that protect taxpayers remain intact — private capital must be invested before state incentives kick in.

“I would hate to see the state lose a project of this magnitude on a technicality. If they’re as close as I believe they are, I would hate to see them lose it on a technicality,” Davis said.