City Council approves application for East Jerusalem Avenue development project

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Picayune City Council, the council was presented a request by City Clerk Amber Hinton to apply for a grant for BP spill money through the Mississippi Gulf Coast Restoration Grant program. The grant request is for the widening and development of East Jerusalem Avenue back to Interstate I-59 at a cost of $2.5M. This will require a 20% match by the city. At the end of East Jerusalem Avenue, the biggest track of property, approximately 9 acres, is owned by Resurrection Life Ministries church (RLM).

Prior to the council discussing the grant request, councilperson Tammy Valente recused herself from the meeting verbally by acknowledging her action to City Attorney Nathan Farmer. Later in the meeting during the final minutes, Valente explained that her recusing herself was based on her being a member of RLM and she had read an opinion from the state attorney general’s office that gave her reason to take the action.

When Valente left the meeting, Mayor Ed Pinero and councilman Larry Breland questioned Farmer about Valente’s decision to recuse herself. Pinero asked Farmer if she could recuse herself since she has had discussions and email correspondence about the grant application. Farmer informed them that Valente had a right to recuse herself before any vote was taken on the matter. Pinero and Breland both appeared puzzled by Farmer’s response, but Pinero told the council they would move ahead with discussion on the topic.

During the discussion, the council came to the conclusion that this action (applying for the grant) was a preliminary step to the process of receiving money since the BP funding request will be scored by MDA and submitted to the BP commission and finally voted on by the legislature before any funding would be awarded, thus before the city would be obligated for the 20 percent funding match. The city can submit a project once each year for the next 15 years according to city officials.

After the council discussed the proposed project, the vote was 4 to 1 in favor of applying with Councilman Wayne Gouguet voting against it. Gouguet reasoned that the request did not have the proper planning or details as this point to submit. He also was not comfortable with applying for money when the details of what RLM would do were defined at this point. He also felt the city should be investing money to lure manufacturing type companies and jobs versus adding more retail jobs. Gouguet based his data on his understanding that RLM plans, while not revealed in detail to the council, to build a hotel on the land they owned at the end of East Jerusalem Avenue.

At the end of the meeting during the Citizens Concerns time, Martha Ford, broker/realtor for Ford Realty, addressed the council and told them she did not think the Jerusalem project was a good idea for a number of reasons. Ford was emotional in explaining that her parents had built their business in Picayune for the past 70 years and this project would basically force them to vacate their office build that sits on the corner of East Jerusalem Avenue and Hwy 43 (Memorial Blvd).

Ford (pictured at podium) said she had received a phone call with Allen Hickman, pastor of RLM, to confirm her support of developing the Jerusalem property area. Ford said that Hickman said it was his understanding that she had discussions with his brother-in-law Billy Martin (now deceased) and she supported the development of East Jerusalem. Ford said she told Hickman that she did have numerous discussions with Martin, but it was never revealed to her that her office building would have to be bulldozed for the project until recently.

Ford Realty office (right) at the corner of Memorial Blvd and East Jerusalem Avenue

Ford said she is committed to economic development for Picayune and the surrounding area. As a realtor trying to sell property to help the city grow and bring in jobs, she detailed a recent situation that evolve as she was trying to sell a large track of land near the Carriere exit 10 area that has been annexed and is part of the city of Picayune. Ford explained that she had worked with the Pearl River County Utility Authority’s (PRCUA) Cliff Diamond in discussing the access to sewer for a client if they were to purchase the property. Ford said her client wanted to build and operate a large travel center and was willing to pay for the work to bring PRCUA sewer and a water treatment facility to the property as well let PRCUA customers use the system as well. After agreeing to pay for these two items, her client asked for a concession from the PRCUA.

“After all of this, we asked them for free water and we were told no,” Ford shared. Ford said she was frustrated with this situation because the proposed travel center would bring between 40 to 60 jobs to the area plus other possible spin off businesses.

WRJW News contacted Diamond on these events and he stated that he had conversations with Ford about the sewer and water treatment facility for the property, butFord did not discuss free water with him, and if she had, PRCUA cannot grant free water to anyone. He later told WRJW News that he had contacted Ford after being made aware of her comments and she told him that she may have actually spoken to the Pearl River Central Water Association about the water, not PRCUA.

The application for the project is due to be submitted by August 3rd.

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