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Housing, retail project bolstered by state incentives hasn’t materialized

A billion-dollar housing and retail development in north Mississippi still hasn’t broken ground two years after lawmakers rushed into special session to approve $173 million in incentives to bolster the project.

Few people associated with the $2.7 billion Riverbend Crossing project in DeSoto County, near Tennessee’s border, will discuss what’s causing the delay.

Melissa Medley, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Development Authority, said the agency couldn’t comment about specifics because the project is ongoing.

Chris Gouras, a public finance consultant for Riverbend Crossing developer, Phillips Development Co. of Newport Beach, Calif., declined to answer questions about rumored financing trouble.

While some key lawmakers acknowledge disappointment about the pace, they’re quick to point out Mississippi isn’t out of millions of dollars if the project fails to materialize. The only loss would be the $95,460 cost of the three-day special session that included additional agenda items.

“I’m disappointed it’s not further along,” said Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale. “With the information we had at the time, a special session was necessary. The next time we will probably look closer to see if (a proposed project) can be put off another six months until the regular session.”

Riverbend Crossing was proposed for a 4,600-acre site south of Memphis and north of the bustling casino area in Tunica County.

Developers touted plans for a movie-themed entertainment park, hotels, golf courses and up to 9,500 homes along a series of lakes. To expedite the project, lawmakers approved $23 million of state money for roads and water and sewer lines, plus another $150 million in tourism tax rebates over the first 10 years.

A study by the state College Board showed Riverbend Crossing would create 28,000 jobs, 13,000 of which would be permanent.

It’s a 15-year project, but developers were required to secure land and financing by June 2007 to qualify for the incentives. Developers purchased 60 acres, but most of the site is yet to be purchased, said Gouras.

“They continue to work diligently toward bringing the project to fruition,” Gouras said.

The current housing climate might not be one of the factors holding up Riverbend Crossing, even though the plan calls for the construction of thousands of homes, said Marty Milstead, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Mississippi.

“There are some areas where there’s plenty of development going on. Clearly, whether you’re in north Mississippi or wherever, you need to see what’s happening in your market,” said Milstead. “Anytime you have a big vision project, there’s more to evaluate. There’s clearly more than the housing element piece to that puzzle up there.”

Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said he talks regularly with the developers, and is confident the project eventually will be completed.

“They’ve invested a ton of money and a ton of resources in this project. Do I wish it was happening now? Of course I do,” Davis said.