Neel-Schaffer Senior Engineer Manager Mark Beyea gives a presentation about the transportation enhancement grant in 2012.

Almost six years after a federal transportation enhancement grant was announced for Fondren’s historic business district, leaders say construction will finally begin this fall.

“It’s good looking,” says Fondren Renaissance executive director Jim Wilkirson of the $2.5 million enhancement plan. “I don’t think anyone understands what we’re getting ready to get. Just the plantings and walkability of it are enticing alone. It’s more of an experience for the neighborhood.”

With federal money obtained through federal, state, city and neighborhood cooperation in 2011, the grant specifically aims to address ADA accessibility and beautification efforts. Wilkirson is quick to clarify no road construction or sewer upgrades can be made with this money.

And that, he says, has been part of the holdup.

“You had the initial planning stages, hiring engineering and then a series of public meetings to shape the scope of the work,” he explains. “What we didn’t expect was a flooding issue on Fondren Place that a previous city administration believed could be resolved out of that grant money.”

Wilkirson estimates that back and forth of “can we or can’t we” bogged the grant project down at least a year.

Many believe that the obtaining of property easements held the project up.

“That’s not true,” Wilkirson clarifies. “Our office assisted with that process and frankly, (project engineers) Neel-Schaffer said they’d never had anything move that quick and smooth. It’s because we have that rapport with our businesses and landowners.” And the easements don’t expire. Wilkirson says they are “indefinite until the work is completed.”

More commonly known as the “sidewalk grant,” the project offers a list of improvements to “downtown Fondren,” (defined as State at Old Canton, North to Hartfield and Glenway, including Duling and Fondren Place to Old Canton Road) making the area a greener, more pedestrian friendly location.

Completely rebuilt, ADA accessible sidewalks (widened in some spots); new or refreshed crosswalks; overhead wayfinding and pedestrian signage; extension of the Duling Avenue bike lane to Lakeland; road narrowing efforts on State and Old Canton; bike racks; and a massive amount of landscaping are all part of the base bids opened last week. Hemphill Construction offered the lowest bid.

“We’re trying to see how many add-ons the city can address and put back in the grant,” Wilkirson said of $100,000 worth of optional projects that go along with the sidewalk grant. “My hope is that they would look at that and address the additional needs.”

Those options include entry point signage – at the point at Old Canton and State, at The Pig & Pint at Hartfield and State, at Fondren Church on Old Canton at Glenway and a “seat wall” sign at Old Canton and Lakeland at Rainbow Co-op; cast concrete markers on corners denoting the area as Fondren; and removable bollards on Duling Avenue at State Street and Morgan Place, used to block the street for events.

Some options, like a new bus shelter at State and Mitchell, will likely be covered by developer Roy Decker when construction begins on his hotel, The Fondren. Another piece, wayfinding directories in two locations in the neighborhood, could be accomplished more easily through a beautification effort to wrap the signal boxes at Fondren Place and Duling Avenue on State Street.

Now that bids have been opened, Wilkirson says the city gives the final go-ahead. “Once it is put before city departments that are being affected and the mayor and council sign off, there’s a 60 day waiting period before construction could commence, then a 30 day grace period. The goal to begin construction would be this fall.”

WIlkirson has confidence this project will move quickly, a bellwether for the Lumumba administration in addressing Jackson development. “The city was expecting this would pass through their system within a 30-day spectrum,” he adds. “I think with our council persons in our ward – all three (Lindsay, Foote and Stokes all represent portions of Fondren) – they’ll want to push that through. This could be the first project Mayor Lumumba signs off on.”

There are 94 days in the contract allotted to construction and completion. That’s 94 working days of good weather. Documentation notes how construction managers are to address temporary signage, worker dress code and who is supposed to be told each day about construction changes. “That’s been a push all along – to be that communicator to the public,” Wilkirson said of his organization’s efforts to keep the public abreast of project progress.

Will road and sewer issues in the same area get addressed at the same time? “That’s our goal,” Wilkirson says, noting a growing-by-the-day pothole on Duling with underlying water line break, a puzzling water line issue at Morgan and Fondren Place and a pockmarked climb up the hill alongside Fondren Corner. “With all of this improvement happening around it, I don’t see how we can’t seek the city’s help in repairing these roads. It’s a pressing issue.”

With a project of this scope, Wilkirson talks of the long-term benefits and the holistic benefit to the city. “This is Fondren pushing Jackson forward. This is everybody working together – with downtown, Belhaven, The District and others all-around making Jackson a great city again. It’s up to us to get behind these things and say ‘it’s time: let’s go.’”