Natchez board wants state to take over visitors center
from Staff Reports - NEWS
February 15, 2017 - ListenUpYall.com
By John Mott Coffey
NATCHEZ, Miss. – Aldermen are asking the state to take over the Natchez Visitor Reception Center as the city struggles to pay for repairing and maintaining the 20-year-old structure.
The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday voted to request legislation be introduced to transfer the city-owned facility to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
City officials said Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez will try to get the transfer attached to an appropriation bill that funds MDOT. The state Legislature is currently working on the budget to fund state government for the coming year.
The visitors center by the Mississippi River bridges was constructed in 1997 with about $8 million in mostly federal funds to be the hub of the city’s tourism sector. It’s only had piecemeal repairs and now needs to be refurbished.
A report presented to the board last October estimated more than $600,000 worth of work is needed for the 25,000-square-foot structure.
Since the Natchez tourism facility also functions as an official Mississippi welcome center and receives state funds, city officials are hoping the state will take ownership. With such a transfer, the Legislature could put up more funds to maintain it as it does for other state welcome centers.
City officials have also discussed the possibility of the visitors center being handed over to the federal government since the Natchez National Historical Park uses about half of it and pays the city for leasing the space.
The mayor and aldermen have been hard-pressed in recent months to find ways to fund the center’s renovations.
“I think we need to go with any avenue we can,” said Alderman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis.
“The plan is to use every avenue,” said Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell.
Among the $625,000 in estimated repairs identified for the visitors center: fixing leaking roofs and gutters, replacing air conditioners, repainting its interior and exterior, replacing carpets and redesigning the central lobby area.
The city is starting to repay the $900,000 borrowed last year to ensure it has enough money to operate. The Natchez Board of Aldermen on Tuesday voted to pay the bank $500,000 as the first installment. The rest of the tax-anticipation loan must be repaid by next month, said interim City Clerk Megan Edmonds.
The board borrowed the money for the city to make it through the first months of the fiscal year that began in October as property tax collections don’t adequately flow in until January and February.
Poor financial accounting and overspending have plagued City Hall in recent years. Darryl Grennell, who replaced Butch Brown as mayor in July, got aldermen in September to hire an accounting firm to conduct a “forensic audit” of the city’s financial records. Also, since Grennell took office, the city has lost two chief financial officers: the first city clerk was fired and the second resigned.
Aldermen in the coming months will need to revise the city’s $30 million budget and have “the burden of making it balance” to ensure spending is contained, said Alderman Dan Dillard.
The board did vote Tuesday to seek bids on body cameras that aldermen want to purchase for Natchez police officers to wear.
Grennell also noted the city needs to purchase a street-sweeping machine to replace the old one he said is worn out.
The Board of Aldermen voted to support enacting a state law for Natchez-Adams School District board members to be elected rather than appointed. A bill specifically for this died last week in the state Legislature, but Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez said there is other legislation alive he could try to amend to authorize an elected school board.
The five-member NASD Board of Trustees is currently appointed by aldermen and Adams County supervisors. School trustee Thelma Newsome’s term expires this month. While she wants to be re-appointed, other candidates are being asked to apply, said Mayor Darryl Grennell.