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Stories Written by Errol Castens

news_inthenews_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

Oxford Conference Center and Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Center are among ConventionSouth Magazine’s 2014 “Elite 50 Conference Centers in the South.”

The two were the Magnolia State’s sole inclusions in the list touted as among the “coolest” and “most meeting friendly” facilities from 16 states and the Caribbean. The sites will be featured in the June issue of ConventionSouth.

“Meeting planners are especially looking for the business-focused environments and top-of-the-line event services that conference centers offer,” said Associate Publisher and Editor Marlane Bundock. “The Elite 50 each offer meeting planners and their attendees a unique set of features such as technology and aesthetics, and are able to host a diverse range of gatherings from cutting-edge business meetings to well-orchestrated social events.”

Todd Hunt, executive director of BancorpSouth Arena and Conference Center, credited his staff with earning the honor.

“Unlike other destinations, we don’t have the luxury of a beach, river or mountain to create an idyllic setting for a meeting space,” he said. “What we do have is one of the best staffs in the country, who deliver top-notch service to all of our clients. That’s the reason groups like the Mississippi Junior/Senior Beta Clubs, the Mississippi Natural Gas Association, Mississippi Society of CPAs and many others return to Tupelo each year for their annual meetings.”

Hollis Green, manager of Oxford Conference Center, was equally complimentary of his staff.

“This honor is a tribute to the Oxford Conference Center’s hard- working employees, loyal customers and to the Oxford community at large,” he said. “We are dedicated to customer satisfaction and believe in taking the extra mile to guarantee a first-class event. We are fortunate to have so many capable vendors that share our vision for great customer experiences. Our dedication extends to the Oxford community as well.”

Oxford Conference Center’s honor highlights the venue’s value just as city officials explore how to stem operating losses.

“This year marks the Oxford Conference Center’s ninth year in operation,” Green said. “Additionally, 2014 will be the strongest fiscal year in sales the facility has ever experienced and can be directly linked to our returning customers. With more than 450 events and 45,000-plus event attendees, the Oxford Conference Center continues to be a valuable asset to the Oxford community.”



The crux (pun intended) of Christianity is the cross. Christianity teaches that God’s standard is perfection and that even the best people violate that standard. Because God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful, he became man in the person of Jesus, lived a perfect life and died a horrific death so that we need not. Forgiveness and new life is available, free, as John 3:16 witnesses, to “whoever believes in him.”

Jesus is widely acknowledged, even among secularists, as a profound teacher and a great humanitarian. But those labels don’t account for his determined course to the cross, where he died a horrific, humiliating death under the condemnation of others’ sin.

Neither does the Heaven-on-Earth philosophy of preachers who picture God as eager to give us all Escalades and accolades if we’d only recognize what truly cool people we are.

God indeed loves to give good gifts (Matthew 7:11), and prosperity and health are certainly to be desired (3 John 2). But if good wishes and happy self-talk are all Christianity has in the face of eviction or a ripped-apart family or a grim diagnosis or the world’s overload of evil, that’s no Christianity worth the name.

It’s also easy for preaching to devolve into mere urgings to be better people.

Scripture is replete with admonitions to overcome flaws and do good works, but some turn good works into a means to an end. The 1600s theologian Walter Marshall wrote bluntly of this: “If you seek to earn your salvation by sincerely trying to do good works, you are condemned.”

Less ambitious earning-one’s-salvation adherents satisfy themselves with “better than that guy” standards. Not being brawlers, swindlers, wife beaters, child molesters, murderers or drug dealers puts them ahead of plenty of other folks, they reason, so surely God is OK with them.

Contemporary Baptist theologian Albert Mohler warns against that outlook.

“In order to participate in this seduction, we must negotiate a moral code that defines acceptable behavior with innumerable loopholes,” he writes. “Most moralists would not claim to be without sin, but merely beyond scandal. That is considered sufficient.”

As inconvenient as this truth might be, sin is a universal problem to which humans cannot provide our own remedy. Our helplessness is as deep as that of a corpse: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1).

That’s why health-and-wealth theology is hollow, good works don’t make us alive and Jesus can’t be dismissed as a mere teacher or humanitarian.

Remember this, on this Good Friday: On the cross, God died for men.

That’s the crux of the matter.

Contact Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens at (662) 816-1282

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Mississippians interested in learning how the criminal justice system works – and doesn’t work – are invited to the first University of Mississippi Conference on Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center.

The conference opened Sunday with a screening of “Mississippi Innocence,” the 2010 film that explored similar capital murder cases in Noxubee County in which the men convicted were eventually exonerated. After a tour and presentations at Parchman Penitentiary, the on-campus programming continues today at 5:30 with a keynote on prison rebellions. Tuesday will feature 12 panels on subjects from prisons and higher education to post-prison reentry and from experiencing incarceration and its aftermath to race and the Southern criminal justice system.



“As you may have seen by the volume of tweets over the past few weeks, we’re excited about this,” Otis Pickett, assistant professor of history and political science at Mississippi College and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, told Sunday night’s audience. “Thank you for caring so much about the issues … for giving a voice to those who are often neglected.”

Patrick Alexander, assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Ole Miss and co-founder of the Prison to College Pipeline program, said many of the issues at the conference will be as pertinent to those most focused on public safety as to those interested in restorative justice.



“This conference is not only putting forward the issues that aggravate us but is putting forward solutions – or at least makeshift solutions until we get better ones,” he said.

The “Mississippi Innocence” film stunned the audience of more than 50 people. It explored factors that contributed to the flawed convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks of a crime that DNA eventually proved was committed by someone else – who then admitted his crimes. The problems ranged from undisclosed evidence to deeply flawed “expert” testimony and a lack of accountability for false prosecution.

“Because the justice system looks very official, you can’t assume it is always right,” said Joe York, the Ole Miss documentary filmmaker who directed “Mississippi Innocence.”

“I would like people to leave (the screening) with a healthy mistrust for the legal system,” he said. “Things didn’t work the way they were supposed to work in these cases, and they probably don’t work the way they’re supposed to a lot of times.”

Except for today’s prison tour, all sessions are at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center on the Ole Miss campus and are open to the public. For more information, visit or call (662) 915-5916.

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The man largely credited with Oxford-University Transit, the expansion of Oxford’s historic preservation efforts and the preservation of its tree canopy will retire April 30.

Tim Akers, who became city planner in December 2005, credits Oxford’s officials, staff and residents with the quality of life that continually garners regional, national and international attention for the small college town.

“Any perceived success I had here couldn’t have happened without a lot of folks,” he said. “There are a lot of good, talented, dedicated folks who work for the city. The board of aldermen and the mayor have been extremely supportive in whatever I suggested, for the main part. I’ve worked with a lot of commissions made up of volunteers who listen to a lot of problems and help the wheels of government continue to move forward.”

Akers came to Oxford after a quarter-century with the city of Jackson, where his last responsibilities were managing its land use and transportation divisions. Within three years of being in Oxford, he and then-Mayor Richard Howorth, in partnership with University of Mississippi officials, had shepherded the start-up of a joint bus system whose monthly ridership has surpassed 100,000 several times.

University leaders had begun envisioning a more pedestrian campus, though, and city officials had already recognized congestion in downtown Oxford as a problem, and transit promised help for both goals.

“The university had always been part of the picture, but I never anticipated that the level of ridership, the pent-up demand that the university represented,” Akers added.

During his tenure Oxford hired Standard Parking to manage parking downtown. Merchants almost universally agreed the effort moved long-term parkers off the Square and opened storefront spaces for shoppers and diners, but it also was a cash drain. The newest effort is a contract to begin paid, metered parking – an idea that board members would not take up during an election year – with hopes eventually to build a parking garage.

“Part of the goal of management of downtown parking was the opportunity sometime to make the Square more pedestrian,” Akers said. “With paid parking, you create a revenue stream.”

He points to more than 800 applications for certificates of appropriateness inside Oxford’s Historic Preservation districts.

“That’s a good thing. It ensures that in-fill development in Old Town Oxford is consistent with what’s around it,” he said. “And we’ve had over 540 site plans to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, many of them valued at millions of dollars. Not all were built. That’s what all city planning officers do.”

Akers also notes with satisfaction the expansion of Oxford’s bike path system and sidewalk upgrades, along with landscape ordinance amendments – passed under the leadership of the Tree Board – that now require builders to replant trees after development.

Akers, 65, is working part of this month toward transition with his successor, Andrea Correll, who came to Oxford from a similar post in Pinehurst, N.C. On April 26, however, his life will take a new turn every bit as drastic as closing out his official career, when he and Paula McLarty plan to say “I do.”

“People are wondering if I’m going to be bored with my retirement,” he said. “I’m getting married, and my new wife has three grandchildren that I imagine will keep me occupied.”

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The expansion of John Leslie Tennis Center, originally projected to open in early February, is still several weeks away from completion.

“I’m going to say it will probably be two more months. I’m trying to give more time than I hope it will take. Every time we get something shaped up, it rains,” said Jeff Williams, engineer for the $1.6 million project, which is funded by Oxford, Lafayette County, the University of Mississippi and private donors.

When finished, the center, which bears the name of the city’s longest-tenured mayor, will offer eight existing courts and 12 new ones.

The seemingly incessant rains of this year have combined with the near-record cold to put its construction seriously behind schedule.

“We’ve had over 50 non-chargeable days for wet weather or rain or cold,” Williams said.

In addition to cold-delayed concrete and asphalt work, heavy rains also have caused erosion, a problem that will be addressed mostly with seeding rather than sod as a cost-saving measure for the project – one of many cuts that helped reduce the original estimate by nearly half. With each rain, sand splashes onto the courts, requiring recleaning before painting and striping.

“Right now the main concern is the integrity of the courts – having a nice, bright surface,” Williams said.

Oxford Parks Commission members, most of whom were not on the board when the complex was planned, were clearly frustrated with the project’s delays and changes.

“In the future, I would think it would behoove us, if we have a project of this magnitude, to either wait until we can do it correctly or build just what we can build now and stage the rest later so we don’t have a problem spending $1.6 million and trying to put Band-Aids on it to finish it,” said commission member Allen Kimbrell.

“We have pop-up fatigue. We’re getting tired of everything that adds to this tennis project,” added member Kurre Luber. “The things that ‘popped up’ (include) several thousand dollars in renovation just to get a bathroom out there.”

Williams said the local tennis community had originally advised forgoing restrooms on the project in favor of more courts.

“It’s our responsibility to spend the city’s money (properly), not the tennis community’s,” Luber said.

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – To generate funds for street construction, Oxford officials are considering charging to park on a major entrance to the University of Mississippi and the city.

Last week the Board of Aldermen, the mayor and leading city staff members discussed the possibility of installing parking meters on the street Oxford calls Old Taylor Road and the university labels University Place. The street runs from the Highway 6/278 bypass to University Avenue, bisecting the Ole Miss campus. Hundreds of Ole Miss students, who already pay the university $95 per year for commuter permits, park along it daily.

“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do. That was one idea that came up,” Mayor Pat Patterson said. “Old Taylor Road, we believe, is our road. It’s clearly inside the city of Oxford, and we control the roads inside the city of Oxford. We maintain it.”

The idea of installing meters to charge students for parking privileges stems from both the city’s recent decision to meter 315 spaces in downtown Oxford and its search for funding for crucial infrastructure.

One of the most desperately needed is an estimated $10 million expansion of West Oxford Loop from Anderson Road to Old Sardis Road to College Hill Road. The road is eventually intended to connect eastward to Highway 7 North via Industrial Drive and Northpointe Parkway.

After MDOT declined the 3.5-mile expansion, Lafayette County officials agreed this week to explore a joint venture with Oxford to build the project. The university, however, has declined so far to participate. Last fall, it declined a city request to attach a $1, $2 or $3 assessment to each football ticket.

“We’re looking at all options to generate some revenue for road construction, and putting meters on Old Taylor Road is an option we’re considering,” Patterson said. “We want to make it very clear that we believe that’s our road, and the City of Oxford controls it.

“We’re going to specifically ask the university to help us extend West Oxford Loop,” he said. “The benefits to the community and the university are great. It takes pressure off Jackson, off the (Highway 6) bypass, off Anderson Road. It’s an absolutely needed road, so we think it is appropriate that the university help pay for it.”

Patterson said the current disagreement is not an impasse in city and university relations.

“I think we have a very positive relationship overall,” Patterson said. “Sometimes there’s an intersection.”

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Some people are dying to have a place in Oxford.

As the city has grown, so have demands on the city cemetery. The roughly 30-acre property, bordered by 16th Street, Jefferson Avenue, a residential area and Bramlett Elementary School, has only a few hundred unsold plots.

The cemetery dates back to soon after the city’s founding in the 1830s and was donated to the city by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Though officially named Oxford Memorial Cemetery, the property is still commonly called “St. Peter’s.”

The issue of crowding has been studied for several years.

“It’s public knowledge that St. Peter’s is getting crowded, and it’s also public knowledge that cremations are greatly on the increase in the United States,” Mayor Pat Patterson told aldermen in early 2013.

Aldermen last week approved an action that would extend the useful life of the cemetery, voting to build a columbarium that would provide above-ground niches that would accommodate more than 1,600 people’s cremains.

Public Works Director Bart Robinson presented a plan for a stone-and-brick structure with about 815 metal niches, each of which can accommodate two standard urns.

“It’s an above-ground, three-sided structure – all front-loaded niches with brick seating walls,” he said. “It’s designed so that small memorial services could be held in it.”

Robinson estimated the cost at $550,000. Letting the project for bid awaits only the Historic Preservation Commission’s approval of the design, which could be given at its May 13 meeting.

The columbarium will be built on the site of the current cemetery maintenance building.

“We hope to have the new maintenance building done the next few weeks,” Robinson said. “We could have the columbarium ready by fall.”



The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts everyone’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” as does the U.S. Constitution in different words.

One controversial manifestation of those freedoms is that of the conscientious objector. Sovereigns traditionally require citizens and aliens alike to fight wars, good or bad. Conscientious objectors, rather than violate their conscience, have endured social rejection, confiscation of property, imprisonment and even death. Eventually, civilized nations accommodated their consciences.

Still, some folks see conscientious objectors as unpatriotic, cowardly or even treasonous. Some in the “culture wars,” too, are determined to allow no neutrality.

Bakers in Oregon and Colorado, a photographer in New Mexico and a florist in Washington, among others, were sued because their religious beliefs forbade participating in a same-sex wedding or its equivalent.

The lawsuits were aimed to force them to violate their beliefs or to punish them for not doing so. columnist Mark Joseph Stern labels these people’s beliefs – the vast majority view just a few years ago – “hatred of gay people so vehement” that seeks “never, ever have to provide a gay person with a basic service.”

I’ll sell tomato plants to anyone. I work with, write about, do business with, am friends with and kin to homosexual people. But as a photographer, baker or florist, I, too, would seek conscientious objector status regarding same-sex weddings.

The historically Christian belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is the same position Bill Clinton signed into law and that Barack Obama espoused when he was first elected president.

Some rend their garments in horror at the new Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act and declare its supporters “discriminatory,” “bigoted,” “homophobic” and worse.

Its offending language says, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except … if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person … is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and … is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

That’s pretty mild language.

Slate columnist William Saletan supports gay marriage but not running roughshod over others’ consciences.

“I’m disturbed by what I see today. We’re stereotyping and vilifying opponents of gay marriage the way we’ve seen gay people stereotyped and vilified,” he writes. “This is a deeply personal moral issue. To get it right, we need more than justice. We need humanity.”

We need to allow for conscientious objectors.

Contact Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens at (662) 816-1282or

other_green_newsBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Have leftover paint, depleted batteries, unneeded cleaners or expired garden chemicals?

Residents of seven counties can safely dispose of such household hazardous waste on two Saturdays this month.

“We’re having Household Hazardous Waste Days in Oxford and Verona like we normally do,” said Dan Reese, manager for Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority. “We’ve been doing this for several years.”

Residents of Calhoun, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc and Union counties may bring items.

This Saturday drop-offs will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Oxford Conference Center south parking lot.

On April 26 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the event will be repeated at the Lee County Agri-Center. That same day, the city of New Albany will sponsor a drop-off location at the Union County Library parking lot from 6 a.m. to noon, with collected items to be hauled to the Verona site.

Eligible items include cleaners, photo chemicals, pesticides, propane cylinders, paints and other finishes, thinners, pool and spa chemicals, tires, appliances, medical supplies, aerosols, automotive fluids, batteries, computers and electronics, fuels, fluorescent bulbs, adhesives and disinfectants.

Furniture, construction trash, household trash, biohazard materials, explosives, radioactive materials, unknown substances and commercial hazardous waste cannot be accepted.

The events are sponsored by Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority, the city of Oxford, Lafayette County, Lee County and Waste Connections.

For more details, call (662) 489-2415.

town_oxford_greenBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – The Oxford Downtown Council will host its third annual Spring Open House this weekend, kicking off with a free concert by the George McConnell Acoustic Duo from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday on the courthouse lawn.

The showcasing of downtown Oxford is designed as a family-friendly event. Saturday’s activities on the courthouse lawn include a decoration station and free photos with the Easter Bunny from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by an Easter Egg Hunt.

“The Spring Open House has become such a tradition for Oxford in a relatively short amount of time,” says Mark Huelse, President of the Oxford Downtown Council and Co-Owner of Something Southern. “The citizens of Oxford do so much to support this town, and this is our way of giving back to them and showing our appreciation.”

For more information, visit