The plan for a long-awaited passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile -- with a stop in Bay St. Louis -- is on track and could be ready to go in as little as two years, officials said this week.
"The last piece of this puzzle is a $14 million investment from the state of Mississippi," Knox Ross, vice-chairman of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), said Wednesday. "As soon as we get that all together, (Amtrak officials) said their time frame for putting everything together would be about 24 months."
Ross said there are still a few wrinkles to iron out, but he was confident the state legislature would secure the necessary funding.
The project has been in the works for more than three years. It began in early 2016, when members of the SRC, Sen. Roger Wicker and Gov. Phil Bryant conducted an Amtrak tour from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., stopping in Bay St. Louis and other points on the Gulf Coast along the way.
Once the service is operational, Ross said, there will also be stops in Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.
Ross said the service would be a huge boon for Bay St. Louis, bringing two trains a day in from New Orleans, and two trains a day in from Mobile.
"You could to a day in-and-out of New Orleans to the Bay or Mobile, or vice versa," he said. "There are at least 700,000 foreign visitors a year in New Orleans, and that's not counting the millions of conventioneers every year. They might not rent a car and drive all the way to the Bay, but they'll walk a block or two down to the train station for a nice day trip.
"All of the work's been done by already by all of the people who worked so hard to get the city back better than it was before (Katrin). …. You look at the investment that's been made in downtown Bay St. Louis, it's probably the hottest real estate on the Coast right now. This is sort of the icing on the cake, to us."
The SRC conducted a business meeting at the Longfellow Community Center in Bay St. Louis on Friday.
John Spain, SRC chairman, on Friday praised the city of Bay St. Louis and Mayor Mike Favre, telling Favre that the huge welcome the Bay offered representatives on the 2016 tour was one of the main reasons the project got the green light in the first place.
Spain and SRC Commissioner John Robert Smith outlined some of the behind-the-scenes work that has gone on to help make the project a reality.
"Sen. Roger Wicker has been our champion," Spain said. Wicker was instrumental in securing the Consolidated Rail Safety Infrastructure Initiative, which provided federal grants to upgrade existing rail lines for passenger service.
Amtrak itself also put up a $6 million investment, Spain said, as well as hiring a third-party negotiator to work with CSX to get everything in place.
Smith said an economic impact study indicated that the passenger service would yield a 15-1 return on investment
Spain said everyone on the Coast needs to let their legislators know they should be behind the project.
"From a Coastal perspective," Spain said, "your legislature needs to know you what it done. They just need to hear from the local people what you want. They are ready to act, I believe."
Favre said the Bay St. Louis city government and Hancock County Board of Supervisors are expected to invest $50,000 each in upgrading the existing BSL Depot to make it ADA-compliant for train passengers. He said both bodies were scheduled to vote on that funding next week.
The Carnival season will kick into high gear this weekend as the clock winds down toward Fat Tuesday in just four days, with the Krewe of Diamondhead parade scheduled today, Saturday; the St. Paul Carnival Association parade in Pass Christian on Sunday; the Mystic Krewe of the Seahorse Lundi Gras parade in Bay St. Louis on Monday; and the Krewe of Real People: Next Generation parade in the Bay on Mardi Gras Day.
The Holy Trinity Catholic School Krewe of Knights kept the good times rolling yesterday with its 40th annual parade in downtown Bay St. Louis. King Trace Carter, Queen Bella Hebert and the dukes and maids toasted the royal court of the Krewe of Nereids at the school gym after the parade, and Bay Mayor Mike Favre proclaimed Friday as "The Day of the Knights."
The Krewe of Diamondhead parade is scheduled to begin today, March 2, at noon. However, the forecast calls for rain, so that may affect the schedule.
State Sen. Philip Moran is the grand marshal for this year's parade, which will begin on Gex Drive, taking a left on Aloha Drive, to Kalani Drive, and right on Golf Club Drive. This year's royal court includes King Ron Rhoades, Queen Dinah Rhoades, Duke Henry Majors, Maid Penny Majors, Duke John Kirschenbaum, Maid Renee Kirschenbaum, Duke Darryl Davis, Maid Judy Davis.
• This Sunday, March 3, the St. Paul Carnival Association will host its 88th annual parade in the Pass, beginning at 12:30 p.m. Again, there's rain in the forecast, which may affect the schedule. The parade starts at the corner of Davis Avenue and Second Street, proceeds to Scenic Drive turns west to Henderson Avenue, North to St. Louis, east to Church Street, south to Second Street, east on Second to Davis Avenue. This year's royalty includes King Christian LXXXIV Joseph Frank Niolet and Queen Christiana 2019 Shelley Hanson.
• On Monday, March 4, the Mystic Krewe of the Seahorse (MKOTSH) will host its sixth annual Lundi Gras parade in downtown Bay St. Louis, starting at 5 p.m. The parade will begin at the historic Depot grounds, turning up Bookter Street, traveling to Necaise Avenue, to Main Street, turning left on Second Street to deMontluzin, right on Beach Boulevard, then right again on Main, ending at Cue Street. There will only be one official stop on the parade route, at the Ugly Pirate, for a toast to King Henry Winters and Queen Kay Kell.
The theme of this year's Seahorse parade is MKOTSH Journey Under the Sea. Pirate costumes are encouraged.
• On Fat Tuesday, March 5, the Krewe of Real People -- Next Generation" will wrap up the Carnival season, beginning its parade on Old Town Bay St. Louis at 1p.m. The parade will follow the traditional route, beginning at Necaise Avenue, turning right on Main Street to Beach Boulevard, turning right on the beach, then right on Union Street; taking Union to Blaize to Sycamore Street, finishing up at Bookter Street.
The qualifying period for this year's county and state-wide elections ended at 5 p.m. on Friday, and one of the major surprises was that this year's ballot won't include David Baria's name for the first time in more than a decade.
"It has been one of the greatest honors in my life, and truly a privilege to serve the people of Hancock County in the Mississippi Legislature for the last 12 years," Baria, a Bay St. Louis resident who serves as state representative for District 122, said in a press release on Friday afternoon. "During that time, my wife Marcie and my three children, Merritt, Bess and Max, have graciously allowed me to pursue my political aspirations in Jackson and around our state," including a run last year for U.S. senate. "In the last decade ,I have all too often been away from home when my family needed me. Now is the time for me to return home and to be present for and supportive of Marcie and the kids. For that reason, I will not run for reelection to the Mississippi House of Representatives."
Baria said in a text message on Friday that he will throw his support behind former Bay St. Louis City Councilwoman Wendy McDonald, apparently the only Democratic candidate for Baria's seat. McDonald qualified for the race on Friday.
McDonald will face Republican candidate Brent Anderson, who currently serves as the public works and building department director for the city of Waveland.
On the Hancock County election front, the vast majority of qualifying candidates registered as Republicans. Four people qualified as Independents. Only two qualified as Democrats.
A few long-serving public officials who qualified for reelection will face no opposition at all, either in the Republican primary or from Democratic challengers, including Hancock County Chancery Clerk Tim Kellar; Tax Assessor/Collector Jimmie Ladner; Justice Court Judge (Place 1) Desmond W. Hoda and Constable (Place 1) Terry Necaise. District 4 Supervisor Scotty Adam will have no challengers in the primary, but will face Democratic candidate Thaddeus Collier in the November General Election.
As expected, long-time Justice Court Judge Tommy Carver -- who resigned his post effective Thursday -- qualified to challenge Sheriff Ricky Adam in the August Republican Primary.
Five candidates qualified on the Republican ticket to replace long-time Hancock County Chancery Clerk Karen Ruhr, who announced last year she would not seek reelection. They are Kendra "KK" Ladner Necaise; Kevin Ladner; Ray Ladner, Jr.; Johnny Rutherford; and Tammy Garber.
In the Supervisor District 1 race, Theresa M. Ryan and Kurt Necaise have qualified as Republican candidates. The winner of that match-up will proceed to the general election to face incumbent Supervisor David Yarborough, who qualified as an Independent; and Jefferson J. "Buster" Verdin, IV, who qualified as a Democrat.
Incumbent District 2 Supervisor Greg Shaw will square off against former Supervisor Kenny Hoda in the Republican primary. The winner will face Independent candidate Henry Ward in November.
n the Supervisor District 3 race, Kodie Koenenn, Fred Sullivan, Carl L. Necaise and Danny N. Johnson all qualified as Republicans. Rather than seeking reelection, incumbent District 3 Supervisor Blaine LaFontaine is challenging District 46 state Sen. Philip Moran.
In District 5, incumbent Supervisor Darrin "Bo" Ladner will face challenger Diana Ladner in the Republican primary.
In the Justice Court Judge Place 2 race, incumbent James A. "Jay" Lagasse, III, will face three challengers in the Republican primary, Jimmy Osbourn, Aaron "Ace" LeBleu and Brian Necaise. The winner of the primary will face Independent candidate Teresa Ehrlich in November.
In the Justice Court Judge Place 3 race, several people have announced their candidacies to replace Carver, including Republicans Roland Flowers, Jr., Eric C. Moran, Roger Joseph Estopinal, Jr., Judith Redshaw and Adam Landrum; Libertarian candidate Lynn Smith. Smith will only be on the ballot during the November general election.
Incumbent Coroner Jim Faulk will face challengers Christopher Crittenden and Jeff Hair in the Republican primary.
The Constable races are as follows:
• Constable Place 2 -- Chad Dorn, incumbent Ray Seal, Jr., and Oliver W. Lee, Sr., qualified as Republicans.
• Constable Place 3 -- Albert Biehl, Paul Taylor and David J. Perks qualified as Republicans. The primary winner will face Democratic candidate Steven L. Saucier and Independent candidate Guy "Tater" Graham in November.
Other races on the ballot will include:
• Incumbent MS Dist. 93 Rep. Timmy Ladner, Republican, who is unopposed.
• Incumbent MS Dist. 95 Rep. Patricia Willis, who will face Diamondhead City Councilwoman Nancy Depreo, Jay McKnight and Robert Dambrino in the Republican primary.
• MS Dist. 19 Rep. Carolyn Crawford, Republican, is unopposed.
The primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 6; and any runoffs would be held on Tuesday, Aug. 27. General Election Day 2019 is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 5, with any needed runoff elections scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 26.
For more information, contact Hancock County Circuit Clerk Karen Ruhr's office at 228-467-5265.
* Editor’s note: There may be additional candidates for state representative and state senator -- candidates for those offices qualify through the state parties, which did not have complete information avialable by press time Friday.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the inaugural edition of “Gems Among Us,” a monthly column that will detail stories about seniors in the area. We all have interesting and sometimes riveting stories from certain times in our lives that should be shared to inform, entertain, inspire and contribute to the wonderful stories of the best of humanity. We hope you enjoy this new feature. This column will run the first Saturday of every month.
The inaugural “Gem” lives in retirement at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis. Brother Matthew Connors was a baker, butcher, bus driver and groundskeeper for the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries after joining at age 19.
At 50, he was assigned to a black church in a poor part of Greenville, Mississippi. He thought he was going to maintain the property. Instead, he found himself in the improbable role of becoming a father figure and mentor to scores of boys and young men on the likely path to death or prison.
Here is Brother Matt’s story:
I was sent to Greenville from Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1990 to maintain the property of Sacred Heart Church. I thought I would stay there a couple of years and move on. God works in mysterious ways, though.
I was raking leaves one day when a kid asked me if I needed help. I asked him why he wasn’t in school and he told me he was expelled for fighting. I called his school and they confirmed he had been expelled so I paid him to help me rake leaves.
“The next day he returned with three friends. They said they had all been expelled for fighting, which I confirmed with the school, so I put them to work also.
That afternoon I asked the kids if they played basketball, and the smallest kid told me he was Michael Jordan! I took Michael Jordan and his friends to the Sacred Heart gym and let them play ball for an hour, after which I closed the gym and went to the rectory to have supper.
Just as I sat down there was a knock at the door. Outside were 90 black kids with various gang colors standing in the yard together, which was a miracle in itself. They asked if I was going to open the gym for them, too. When I told them I would as long as they didn’t wear their gang colors, they protested, at which point I turned to go inside. Realizing I was going to stick to my guns they quickly agreed.
The first night in the gym was tense with rival gang members looking warily upon each other, but after a few nights they were playing on the same teams and helping each other up when they got knocked down. For seven years, they came every night to play basketball for three hours in the gym, rotating teams. When one team lost a game, another team stepped onto the court, and the rule was that either everybody gets the ball or nobody gets the ball.
Then I had a hard bout with pneumonia and my doctor said I could only go to the gym every other night. And so, for the next three years, the boys did just that. During those 10 years of evening basketball games, there was never, not once, a problem on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Church and the gym. Those boys understood the sacredness of the property.
Instead of preaching to the kids who came to play basketball, I got to know them on an individual basis, and tried to lead them from that perspective. As things came to light about their home life, their parents, siblings, extended families and other problems, I began to see they had other needs than to just play basketball every night. These things needed solutions.
So, I became a person wearing many hats. Sometimes it was just a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen, or even a substitute parent. Other times I was transportation to and from medical care, solicitor for donations such as shoes, coats, blankets, baby formula, diapers, baby wipes and sometimes food for an entire family. Those boys had become my family and I cared for each and every one.
When donations didn’t match the need, I used my own meager salary. There were times when there was just not enough to cover the needs of so many, and nothing was left for myself. I relied on Divine Providence to take care of me.
Sometimes I went to bed hungry because of a phone call saying that a family with little children had no food. If I didn’t have the money, then I’d give them whatever food was in our little storeroom. It was my way of trying to show the love of Christ to these boys, most of whom had grown up without a father or any role model to set an example of what a real man should be to his family.
In them I saw potential for better things and did my best to implant that concept into them. I encouraged them to complete their education and to learn a trade. What I repeated over and over was that if they made good changes to their lives, they could – and would – become good citizens who would be an example for those who came after them.
I worked hard to keep guys out of prison. I went to the courtroom every time one of my guys was in trouble. I went to court to speak for my guys around 200 times, maybe a little more, and I came out with 197 of them.
When any of my guys would get arrested, they were incredibly anxious because they felt the system was against them, and that they would be found guilty and get the maximum sentence. I told them I would get them out the first time but after that they needed to smarten up and fly right. And most of them did to the point that today they are successful husbands and fathers.
I went to about 75 funerals in the Delta. About 90 percent of them were for kids who had been shot through the head. I once stood before the casket of a 2-year-old girl who had been shot in the head. She had been dancing on the couch in her house. Her brother was a gang member and he and another guy had gotten into a fight. The other guy went home and grabbed his .45 pistol. He fired it at the brother’s house from a block away. The bullet went through the wall of the house and hit the little girl on the couch.
I had never seen such gun violence, and despite being a gun owner earlier in life, I vowed to get as many guns off the streets as I could. With the concurrence of the police chief, I put the word out that guys could turn guns in to me anonymously with no questions asked.
By the time I left Greenville, I had turned in 71 guns to the police department. I was very thankful that those guns were off the streets and out of hands that might pull the trigger.
It disturbed me to later learn that when the police department needed money to buy equipment, they would sell the guns I had turned in to a pawn shop. The guns would go right back onto the street. Despite this, for a while there was a noticeable drop in gun violence in Greenville. You have to thank God for every blessing, no matter how short-lived.
I experienced the best and the worst of gang members in Greenville. The worst was being the target of two drive-by shootings because I was talking kids into turning away from gangs.
There were many “bests,” but one that sticks out was a night in the gym when the guys formed two lines as if they were going to fight. Instead they walked up to me, side by side, shook my hand, and said, “Happy Father’s Day.”
Wow, the guys really touched my heart that night.
So many times I’ve been asked how a short, white guy from Massachusetts connected with young black boys and men in Mississippi.
I showed them I cared about them. You can’t just tell a person you care about them, you have to show them through actions. Preaching only goes so far. If they have holes in their shoes, buy them new ones. If they’re cold at night, give them blankets. If they’re hungry, feed them. If they need a father figure, be one to them. You have to make people feel like they matter.”
Brother Matt’s Mississippi Delta experiences, including interviews with former gang members, are detailed in the book, “We Did It Together, One Man’s Improbable Journey of Becoming a Father Figure to Gang Members in the Mississippi Delta,” available on Amazon.com.
If you would like to share a story from your life or would like to nominate someone to be a “Gem,” e-mail Bill at: firstname.lastname@example.org.