Foundation ready to help with renovations

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; The stunning results of a downtown facelift project more than 20 years ago would be difficult to duplicate today, but that doesn’t mean historic building owners should despair.

Ronald W. Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said the federal funding available for the renovation of 13 storefronts in the commercial district about 1980 was the last of its kind and indeed provided business owners with funding opportunity and federal tax incentives he does not expect to see again.

Miller learned of the funds soon after he was named director of the organization in 1979 and applied for twice the amount allotted for the project. &uot;It was a federal program coming through the state Department of Archives and History,&uot; he said. &uot;We were able to get $130,000 for 13 buildings.&uot;

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The grant was generous in its allowances, providing all the architectural consultation for renovation of the facades and 50 percent of the construction. The owner paid the other 50 percent of construction costs but also benefited from Miller’s guidance and his expertise as an architectural historian, provided free through the Historic Natchez Foundation.

&uot;The Foundation really got nothing out of it,&uot; he said. &uot;But the downtown commercial district was our main interest, and we believed restoring the store fronts would make the biggest impact.&uot;

The project snowballed, Miller said. &uot;People who didn’t take part in the grant came to us for advice. This was all going on the last two years of the oil boom before it went bust in 1983.&uot;

The Norman Germany family of Dallas &045; with business ties to Natchez in oil exploration &045; were restoring in the 600 block of Franklin Street, at the Canal Street Depot and, eventually, the Natchez Eola Hotel.

&uot;The storefront project spun off an additional 10 or 15 other projects,&uot; Miller said. &uot;At about this time, the Natchez Mall opened, and the last two department stores downtown closed. There was doom and gloom.&uot;

But for restoration, the timing was good. &uot;The general perception was that downtown was dying, but people had money, plenty of money to invest in restoration,&uot; he said. &uot;It became the cool thing to have your business downstairs and the apartment upstairs, especially for the oil companies, no matter where their company headquarters were located.&uot;

The loss of businesses and families that followed the precipitous drop in the price of a barrel of oil in 1983 is incalculable. &uot;It caused bankruptcy all over town, small businesses mainly. We shrank. Our state newspaper said, ‘will the last person to leave Natchez please turn off the lights.’&uot;

Times were tough, Miller said. &uot;And we’ve never gotten back there.&uot;

Miller said the introduction of a casino into Natchez in the early 1990s was believed by many to be a signal of bigger and better economy. &uot;Most of us thought it would be a shot in the arm. It didn’t live up to that promise.&uot;

Furthermore, today’s climate is different from 25 years ago, he said. &uot;We’re not riding the crest of an economy wave. With a shrinking population, we have too many buildings for the number of businesses to inhabit. And there is not enough money to do what we need to do downtown.&uot;

Still, all is not lost. And Miller has hopes for the future. He lauds those who in recent years have taken on downtown buildings and restored them &045; John and Valerie Bergeron on Franklin Street, Mike Worley on Main Street and others.

He also points to buildings now under restoration, including several on Franklin Street and another three on North Commerce Street.

The Foundation has acquired several downtown buildings, secured them and sold them for further restoration. It now is involved in projects including the former Ritz Theater and Memorial Hall, in addition to consulting on at least four others in the commercial district.

Problems exist. Eyesores stand out. However, Miller and others at the Historic Natchez Foundation stand ready to help anyone willing to take on a restoration project.

&uot;In the 1980 storefront project, the building owner got to take 25 percent of the total investment off his taxes over the next few years. That’s down to 20 percent now,&uot; Miller said. &uot;We will give advice and help to fill out those forms at no charge.&uot;

Miller also pointed out that the City of Natchez offers a deferred tax payment to encourage renovation of historic buildings.

&uot;If you take a long view of things, you know it will be all right. The grant money for restorations in 1980 was only a seed. If there hadn’t been money in the economy, it would not have continued.&uot;