Monday, June 21, 2004

Plan would lift downtown out of floods' way

Dirt would come from mountain

The Associated Press

MARTIN - A flood-prone eastern Kentucky town would find itself on higher ground as part of a $97 million project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Martin, located in the center of Floyd County, has been swamped several times by floodwaters from Beaver Creek and the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. The plan calls for leveling part of a mountain that overlooks Martin to create a new site for some buildings, then tearing down 100 or more homes and buildings and raising the downtown 12 to 14 feet with leftover dirt from the mountain.

The project would take up to 10 years to finish, but it's expected to begin with the Corps awarding a multimillion-dollar contract to begin excavating the mountain by mid-July.

The Floyd County tax assessor values all properties in Martin, home to about 630 people, at just $10.5 million.

While some residents say the cost is too high, others argue that the project is the town's only hope for a comeback. The town and some property owners would have the chance to swap old homes for new ones or sell property that might be hard to sell otherwise.

An end to flood damage

Mayor Thomasine Robinson calls the chance to have a future without floods and bring new development to Martin "the opportunity of a lifetime." Robinson was rescued by boat during a 1957 flood, and her flower shop was destroyed by a 1977 flood. Last year, her daughter's beauty shop was damaged when it filled with three feet of water.

The federal government will pay most of the cost of the project and the state will pay 5 percent, the Corps said.

"I think it's a waste of taxpayer dollars," said E.P. "Pete" Grigsby Jr., a longtime Floyd County school official whose father operated several businesses in Martin beginning in the 1930s.

But officials with the Corps say it benefits the nation's taxpayers who won't have to pay for flood relief anymore.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th District, said the project is a sound investment that is "absolutely critical to protecting lives, homes and property in Martin."

Rogers, who has gotten hundreds of millions in spending put in the federal budget for Kentucky flood control and the Martin project over the past several years, also said the plan will "give a boost to the long-term economic future of Floyd County."

Richard Drum, community planner for the Corps, said a giant flood wall would have cost more than $100 million because of differences in elevation. And widening the creek was ruled out because it would not fully protect residential areas, he said.

Saving the town

John Justice, who is managing the project for the Corps, acknowledged it would be cheaper to buy up property in the flood zone and have people move away.

Federal officials discussed that option but "the local community said, 'Hey, if you do that, you're pretty much destroying Martin,' " Justice said. A Corps study said buying out part of the city and walking away would cripple the tax base and hurt the ability to provide police and other services.

Founded in the early 1900s, downtown Martin was developed when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad pushed lines through the area to haul coal and passengers. But decline began creeping in with a decrease in coal jobs.

Longtime landmarks such as the old high school will be razed as part of the project. And some fear too many people will sell their homes and leave.

But Robinson said more than 50 homeowners have said they want to stay on in the redeveloped town. And Drum said he's heard from business investors interested in putting money into the new Martin.

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