McAlester Mayor John Browne expressed the relief of many of those who have been working to get a new highway retail center in the city when he served as opening speaker for the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the long-awaited project.

"Well, we finally made it," Browne said to a round of applause.

Developer Burk Collins of the Burk Collins Company also addressed the group gathered for a pre-groundbreaking reception held Thursday in the student building at New Beginnings Church, which is near the property where the new center is designed to be located.

"It's been a really long, hard road to get it done," Collins said. He also had a prediction for the economic impact he believes the planned new center will have on the surrounding area.

"This whole area around the shopping center is going to explode," said Collins.

Plans call for Collins to construct a new highway retail center as part of a Shops at McAlester project on the east side of the intersection of Fourteenth Street and U.S. Highway 69, known as the George Nigh Expressway where the highway wends through the city.

Browne said the project will represent an investment of from $20 million to $25 million for the city and should result in approximately 312 full-time and part-time jobs when completed. The project is also expected to generate approximately $600,000 in use taxes, the mayor said.

He noted that initial work to try and locate a highway shopping center at the site began five years ago.

"What a long, strange trip it's been to get to this point," Browne said.

"A $25 million investment in our community does not come along every day."

Those gathered for the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting included city and county officials and personnel, along with state legislators, Chamber of Commerce reps, Choctaw Nation representatives, members of Collins' family and crew along with bankers, business owners and local residents who were on hand to help celebrate the event.

Following the comments from Browne and  Collins, the entire group walked outside and crossed a street to reach a row of shovels stuck in piles of dirt a bulldozer pushed up prior to the ceremony. With those handling shovels joined by others standing in front and behind them, Chamber President and CEO Krystal Bess and McAlester Economic Development Director Kirk Ridenour stretched out a ribbon that Karla Taylor cut in two while wielding a huge pair of scissors. Chamber Membership Director Shae Kleindienst stood by down front for the ribbon-cutting.

Collins had particularly praised the efforts of McAlester City Manager Pete Stasiak as well as Ridenour for what he called their hard work to help the project get to this point.

"I couldn't have done it without the city," Collins said. "I guarantee we will make this a fine product for you."

Collins previously said some of the stores that have confirmed to locate in the new center include Hobby Lobby, TJ Maxx, Ross and others. McAlester Regional Health Center plans to place an Urgent Care facility in the center. From four-to-five restaurant pads are also expected tobe constructed at the site.

The agreement for the project came about through a Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, project involving the McAlester City Council and Pittsburg County commissioners.

It calls for Collins to pay for construction of the shopping center upfront. Collins has also said he will pay for construction of a new traffic signal at the intersection of Fourteenth Street and U.S. Highway 69, which is known as the George Nigh Expressway where that part of the highway wends through McAlester.

Collins is to collect the city and the county's portions of the sales tax generated at the site for five years or until he collects $5.5 million, whichever occurs first.

"The city doesn't have it, until we bring it in," Collins said. "If I don't bring it in, I don't get it.

"I guarantee it's a win-win," said Collins.

During the reception, several who attended the event spoke with the News-Capital regarding the Shops at McAlester project.

"It's been a long time coming," said Ward 3 City Councilor Travis Read. "It's going to be great for the city."

Ward 1 City Councilor Weldon Smith, who is also chairman of the McAlester Regional Health Center Board, expressed optimism, even if some are contending shopping centers are on the decrease in the wake of online shopping.

"I think we'll go against the national trend," Smith said. "I think our people will pour in here." As for the urgent care center the McAlester hospital has planned for the site, Smith said that will be good for the people in the area.

Following the ribbon-cutting, Chamber President Bess spoke of how much she's looking forward to what the shopping center is expected to bring.

"I can't wait to see our town flourish," she said.

City Manager Stasiak joined those shoveled some dirt for the groundbreaking ceremony. He's glad to see to see the progress on the project.

"I think it's wonderful," Stasiak said. "I'm ready for it to happen.

"It's moving forward and it's going to be a great addition for our community," he said.

Pittsburg County Assessor Michelle Fields and Ward 3 Commissioner Ross Selman, who served as a TIF Committee member for the project, also attended the event.

"I'm excited," said Fields.

Also attending the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremony were District 7 State Sen. Larry Boggs, R-Red Oak and District 17 State Rep. Jim Grego, R-Bowers.

Jack Southard and Evelyn Renfro of Coast to Coast helped put together the agreement to acquire the land for the project.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's going to help McAlester," said Southard.

Before Mayor Browne stepped down from the speakers' podium, he expressed his thoughts about the project breaking ground.

"It's a great day to be a mayor," said Browne.

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