McComb Enterprise-Journal 

Senator continues push for Okhissa project

By Caleb McCluskey

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith says she is pushing for the Scenic Rivers Development Alliance's acquisition of 150-acres in the Homochitto National Forest at Okhissa Lake for an economic development project.

Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., said this week that she asked Deputy Secretary of Agriculture nominee Dr. Jewel Bronaugh during her confirmation hearing if she supported the project. If confirmed, Bronaugh would lead the part of the department overseeing the transaction.

"The Forest Service has worked diligently with Scenic Rivers and the transfer is nearly complete," Hyde-Smith said. "The development plan for the land includes a lodge-style hotel, conference center and many other amenities to attract visitors to this remote region and really pretty area of my state.

"I am confident it will bring tremendous economic benefits to this largely rural and underserved area. An updated master plan for the Homochitto National Forest to complement Scenic River's development plan in a significant way is something that we really need from the Forest Service."

Bronaugh threw her support in for the project.

"I will confer with the Forest Service to ensure that they are able to work closely with the Scenic Rivers project to identify any other challenges and issues," she said.

Hyde-Smith secured the 2018 Farm Bill provision that authorized the Okhissa Lake property to be transferred to the alliance and asked Bronaugh for a commitment to ensure the department would work closely with the alliance for "maximum benefits."

Scenic Rivers Development Alliance Director Joseph Parker said he was proud of the progress on the project so far, and was happy to see support from the federal level.

"One of the largest projects we are currently undertaking is the development of a lodge and conference and training center at Okhissa Lake in Franklin County. This project would not have been possible without the support of Senator Hyde-Smith," Parker said. "Sen. Hyde-Smith has been there with us every step of the way from that point to now, where she recently promoted our project during the confirmation hearing for the USDA Deputy Secretary in Washington."

Parker said the alliance is hoping for the land transition to be completed by the end of May and said the support of state lawmakers and the state's congressional delegation has helped kickstart the process.

"I can't overstate and emphasize enough the word 'support,' " he said. "We have had a tremendous amount of support from the local, state and congressional level for this project which has been evolving over the last three years.

"SRDA has been consulting with hospitality professionals from across the nation on the project. Our aim is to assemble the best development team as possible to see this project through to its completion."

Parker said he was very enthusiastic about the completion of the project, which he believes will drive more tourism to the area.

"Once complete, this regional project will have a positive economic impact for all of Southwest Mississippi," he said. "We want visitors to our area to experience all of the best we have to offer here in this part of the State. Day trips and excursions will be key for the overall success of the development.

Scenic Rivers was approved to receive $750,000 in state bond money from the state Legislature to pay for the initial stages of developing the area though land acquisitions, road layouts and other planning at the lake.

"Again, I want to give a special thanks to our elected officials who have collaborated on a large scale to make this project possible," Parker said. "While we have a long way to go before we turn the first key, the journey to where we are now has been amazing. It truly is great to see so many people working together and sharing in a common goal."