City, county may gauge recreation support on Nov. ballot

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 6, 2009

NATCHEZ — A new recreation complex in Adams County inched forward on Friday and residents may have a chance to weigh in on the issue as soon as November.

A group of county, city and school leaders met Friday to seek common ground on the much-debated future of a consolidated recreation complex in Adams County.

“One thing we are all for is recreation,” said Adams County Supervisor Henry Watts.

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And, collectively, the city and county leaders present said they’re interested in working together with the Natchez-Adams School District to consider making the Liberty Park area the heart of the proposed complex.

Liberty Park is adjacent to Natchez High School. That land, owned by the county, along with nearby school district land and the land known as the “beanfield,” owned by the Natchez Trace Parkway, could combine to offer approximately 71 acres of land to develop.

Since a portion of the beanfield site was believed to be the site of a French settlement in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a 2001 study showed some restrictions affecting what could be built on those areas. But it doesn’t eliminate using large portions of the site, former city attorney Walter Brown said.

“If we pool our resources, for example, if we put soccer fields on the beanfield, you can have band practice on it,” he said. “We’ve just got to be real creative in what we do.”

Brown suggested the site would probably need to include many features, including baseball and softball fields and likely a swimming pool, but that the details could be decided by a group of citizens later in the process.

The group of leaders discussed a way to gauge public support for such a countywide recreation complex and have found a low-cost way to poll the public, Brown said.

Since the county has already scheduled a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown, who died in March, the county is positioned to gauge public sentiment at virtually no additional cost.

“We need to know what the people want us to do,” Supervisor Mike Lazarus said. “It’s going to cost us some money to move forward (with planning a recreation complex). We need to know if the people are going to be behind us.”

Placing a non-binding referendum on November’s ballot to see if the public would support — in theory — a later bond issue if required to fund the complex would give all of the parties — city, county and school district — the nod of approval, Brown said.

“I believe everybody in this room embraces the concept,” Watts said. “Everybody wants this; you have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Brown said the details of how to pay for it and how much the facility would ultimately cost could still be debated and decided later, but that getting a non-binding referendum on the ballot would help leaders know if such a recreation project is worth pursuing.

Even if the referendum were to pass, supervisors could still call for an official election — or 1,500 voters could do so on their own — to decide if a bond issue had support.

Putting a bond issue on the ballot would take much longer than would a non-binding referendum because it would involve having to get the U.S. Justice Department to approve it under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a process Brown said could take six months or more.

Members of the group now plan to take the proposal before the full city and county boards along with the Natchez-Adams School Board for discussion and consideration, too.

“We’re going to have recreation,” Brown said. “We’re going to have school recreation, city recreation and county recreation. Or we can consolidate it. The goal is to get the maximum recreational facility we can afford for the least amount of funds.”