Thursday, January 26, 2006

Byhalia’s growth spawns projects

Contributing Writer

According to Byhalia Mayor Scooter Dempsey, residents can stop predicting growth and begin acknowledging that growth has already come to the north Mississippi town.

“We are so used to saying it’s coming,” he said. “Really, there is already an influx.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Byhalia’s population as 780 in 2004, however city projections put the current population at near 1,700, suggesting a more than 50 percent spike in two years.

Dempsey attributes the large projection partly to the town’s two annexations last year and to a trend of people moving into smaller suburban areas, such as Marshall and DeSoto Counties, in the Greater Memphis area.

With growth no longer on the horizon but high in the sky, Dempsey said he and other town officials are working to address issues including law enforcement, fire protection and infrastructure.

“We are fighting battles everyday,” he said.

Growth is close to mandating the town have more than a volunteer fire department, and officials are working to man it with a full-time staff in the near future, Dempsey said. In addition, the town plans to begin renovations on the old high school building this year, utilizing a $100,000 grant received in late 2005.

“[The project] is going to take a lot of money,” Dempsey said. “This is just the first phase, but we hope to eventually move the police department into the renovated building.”

Town Hall and the police department moved into a newer section behind the old high school after purchasing both buildings from the Marshall County School District for $300,000 in November 2004.

Also on the mayor and board of aldermen’s agendas are tackling quality of life issues.

“That is what I am pushing,” said Dempsey, who is in his second term and the town’s first full-time mayor. “I feel like quality of life is the No. 1 issue. If we want people to move here, we have to give them something.”

One project to improve Byhalia’s quality of life, Dempsey said, is the construction of a park that will include walking trails, a sports complex, picnic areas and water features. The town purchased more than 160 acres near US 78 and Stonewall Road for approximately $440,000 in December 2005 to house the proposed park. No dates have been set for construction as the town hopes to use funds from the sale of 40 acres - the land is located in the right-of-way for Interstate 69 - donated by two local men in 1997 for a park.

“We hope to take all that money, get some grants and triple it to develop the park,” Dempsey said. “It will be a great asset to our community...and result in a huge surge in sales tax revenue. When people stop in for tournaments, they are going to spend money in our town.”

Another project Dempsey has in mind to address quality of life issues is the refurbishing and renovation of the old high school gymnasium to house city basketball league games and promote the arts.

“I want to get the community back involved more,” he said. “We would only need the auditorium for court and board meetings four times a month. Aside from that, it could be used for getting back to the arts.”

Dempsey proposed that the gymnasium could house a theatre where residents of Byhalia could come watch their children in productions. Such an attraction, he said, would build community pride.

One added note, Dempsey noted his pride for Byhalia in response to an outpouring of community support for fellow Mississippians affected by Hurricane Katrina last August.

“I was overwhelmed at the goodness of people in this community,” he said. “I have never been so touched and proud of Byhalia.”

The town adopted two cities, Ellisville and D’Iberville, sending donations of food, clothing, building materials and other necessities from residents and businesses. The town also allotted space for an emergency shelter, which was cleaned and set up by members of the community over a three-day period, and provided much-needed assistance to evacuees.

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