FLAP grant sought to improve infrastructure to two major tourist attractions in Winston County

By Gwen Sisson

Two of Mississippi’s most beautiful natural resources are located in Winston County, and the FLAP Grant can help provide a little easier access to all that beauty.

Winston County has applied for the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) grant to help continue the road paving program that will provide better access to portions of two national parks located in the county, the Tombigbee National Forest and the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge. This grant will help pave the scenic byway, Noxubee Hills Route, one of only a few scenic byways designated in the state of Mississippi.

According to Mike Peterson, president of the Winston County Board of Supervisors, 12 percent of the county consists of publicly-owned land. The counties that share these two natural resources are committed to improving access to the parks and showcasing these beautiful natural resources.

GUMBRANCH

“They are a tremendous asset from a tourism standpoint,” Peterson said. “They are unique places that are very interesting. But they are hard to access.”

Peterson said it is the goal of all of the counties that share the two national parks to improve the roads connecting the parks, as well as roads connecting Bluff Lake and Choctaw Lake. Once fully completed, 43 miles of road will be paved providing easier access to the local national parks. Total cost for this paving project is estimated at $3 million. Grant money will help complete this project without  any extra cost to taxpayers.

“This has been a group effort with all of the counties dedicated to get this done,” Peterson said. “There has been quite an investment in this project up to this point. And it is one of just a handful of scenic byways in the state of Mississippi.”

In the past, Supervisors have been able to apply for the Public Lands Highway Discretionary Funds to help pave and maintain portions of the park roads in Winston County. But due to a few regulation changes, that funding is no longer available for this project.

Winston County has applied for the Forest Lands Access Program (FLAP) fund to pave and improve Gumbranch Road to Highway 25 as part of the Mississippi Scenic Byway, Noxubee Hills Route.

According to County Engineer, Jimmy Kemp, the full grant will be for the $3 million, but it is an 80/20 match grant. Peterson said Winston County Supervisors are looking into several state and federal funding opportunities to help with the 20 percent match.

“Improving and paving Mississippi’s 43- mile Noxubee Hills Scenic Byway will provide for a better and safer roadway for travel by area residents, employees of the involved Federal land management agencies (FLMAs), and visitors while serving as an economic boast to this area of the State,” Kemp said. “Frankly, simply stated, area counties cannot afford the needed road improvements along this route without assistance from FHWA’s new MAP-21 programs.  These programs are available to our area to provide for improved county road access to the Forest Service’s Tombigbee National Forest and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge.”

Currently, this portion of the scenic byway is unpaved and hinders the more that 461,000 annual visitors to the parks from truly utilizing the area.

If awarded, Winston County can begin the design, right-of-way and utility relocation portion of this project in mid-2014, taking about one year to complete, with construction beginning mid-2015. If grant funds are allocated for this project, the estimated completion date would be late 2015.