City: Rec plans rely on park service

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Natchez officials say they are eager to make recreation a priority, but any plans rest on when the National Park Service will lease property near Natchez High School, known as the &uot;bean field,&uot; to the city.

Congress passed a bill in November allowing the park service to enter into long-term lease agreements with local governments in connection with the extension of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The city already has conceptual plans for a recreational complex on the site.

Now, Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith says it’s not a question of if the park service will lease the land to the city, but when.

&uot;You really can’t do anything until you’ve got the property in hand. That’s the key to all of it. That’s the driving force behind it all,&uot; he said.

But much must be done before the park service could be prepared to lease the land, said Craig Stubblefield, chief of resource management for the Natchez Trace Parkway. For example, federal law requires an environmental assessment of the property before it can change hands. Though a full environmental impact survey, which would take several years to complete, will probably not be necessary, Stubblefield said.

Also, because of the historic nature of the property, believed to have been the site of a French encampment, both the city and park service will have to adhere to standards set out in the National Historic Preservation Act, specifically Section 106.

And for the same reasons, a more extensive archaeological investigation of the property will have to be performed.

Stubblefield said negotiations between park service representatives and the City of Natchez &uot;have just been initiated,&uot; and it could take some time before the park service could release the land.

&uot;We’re anxious to work with the city, but there are quite a few things that would have to be done before the park service could lease the land,&uot; he said.

Smith said the city is aware of the &uot;hurdles&uot; between them and gaining control of the property, and &uot;we plan on working with the park service to expedite what we want accomplished.&uot;

&uot;It’s a front-burner issue for us, and we’re doing all we can to make it a frontburner item for the park service,&uot; he said.

City Attorney Walter Brown said the city and the park service have scheduled a meeting for next month to address some of the work to be done before a lease can be made.

But talk on the local level has already begun. Brown said he had a positive meeting with Adams County supervisors last week about city-county cooperation on recreation projects related to the bean field property.

Officials also hope to involve the Natchez-Adams School District and the Natchez Recreation Council in upcoming discussions, so a definite plan will be in place when the land becomes available.

Brown said the city is also looking into the possibility of performing some of the preliminary environmental and archaeological studies itself.

&uot;So when we meet in mid-April, we may be in the position to do some of those things then,&uot; Brown said.

The need for recreational space will become even more immediate once construction on the Natchez Trace Parkway eliminates a 13- and 14-year-old baseball field in late summer, Smith said.

By that time, Smith said he hopes to have reached an agreement with the park service so a new field could be built on the bean field property in time for the 2002 season.

And with the future of Duncan Park Pool yet to be determined, several officials have suggested entering into an interlocal agreement with Adams County and the Natchez-Adams School District to build a $3 million natatorium either on the grounds of Natchez High School or at the bean field.

At a Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, Jake Middleton, Ward 6 alderman and recreation chairman, said the aldermen will probably decide on whether to open the pool at their next meeting on March 27.

&uot;And it’s going to be a tough decision,&uot; he said.

Like Smith, Middleton said it will require the city, the county and the school district working together to fill the community’s recreational needs, a need that would be best served by a consolidated city-county recreation department.

&uot;We’re going to be coming at you with some new ideas for recreation, and I hope each and every one of you will look at it with an open mind,&uot; Middleton told the chamber members.

Dr. Carl Davis, school district superintendent, said he envisions not only the county and school district joining the city in the recreation projects, but also enlisting the cooperation of the Retiree Partnership and the local medical community.

&uot;All I say is we should get together as a team and do something worthwhile that the entire community could benefit from,&uot; Davis said.

&uot;We’ve got to put all of this other stuff aside, turf and territorial battles, if we’re going to move forward as a community,&uot; he said.