By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Johnny Harris sat outside her second-story apartment Thursday, staring at tons of manmade debris that could easily be mistaken as part of the April destruction elsewhere in the city.
City employees, not a tornado, destroyed the Azalea Gardens Apartments on Ida Street 11 weeks after the storm hit Tupelo. The demolition represents the beginning of a new and better chapter for the area, city leaders believe.
But for the time being, nearby residents like Harris view the debris as not only an eyesore, but also a public health threat to neighborhood children and a breeding ground for rodents and other unwelcome neighbors. Piles of broken concrete, roofing and other building materials remain from 14 apartment buildings, roughly half of the 220 units the City Council bought for $2.15 million a few weeks prior to the April 28 tornado.
Complaints grow with each day the debris remains.
“It looks like an E-4 or something,” said Harris, 51, a resident of Meadow Creek apartments. “If somebody private was doing it the city would have charged them a fine.”
City officials anticipated a month ago debris removal beginning this week but have pushed the timeline back to sometime next month. Bid requirements have been part of the delay.
The City Council approved a $104,870 bid from Century Construction on Tuesday to remove the debris on the 7.8 acres of city property. The council could approve the contract in two weeks, resulting in the mess starting to disappear in late September and be altogether gone sometime in October.
Tupelo Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis understands criticism from residents in the Ida Street area and accepts responsibility.
“I was trying to do it a faster way but it turned out not to be a better way,” he said this week.
Red tape has clogged the process.
“The only reason it’s not picked up is the governmental process required to go through the bidding process,” Lewis said.
Changes in plans have been constant through the years for the apartment property that started as multiple private developments but changed hands as a public-private partnership with the Tupelo Housing Authority and is now owned by the city. Plans are to demolish another six or seven buildings to clear space for owner-occupied single-family residences.
Roughly 50 residents remain in the existing apartment units, property managed through TRI Inc. Realtors. Council members planned months ago to hand management responsibility to the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation but decided this week to keep the direct agreement with the realty company.
“It would have ended up being another layer we didn’t need,” said Tupelo’s city attorney, Ben Logan.