City gives casino six more months

Published 12:08 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NATCHEZ — After an hour-long closed meeting with developers of a proposed Roth Hill casino, the Natchez Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday to give the developers six more months to come up with funding in exchange for $100,000.

The board voted 4-2 to authorize Mayor Jake Middleton to sign an amendment to the lease between the City of Natchez and Natchez Enterprises — the name of the group developing the casino. The amendment will give the city an option to terminate the lease if developers are not approved by the gaming commission to move forward in six months.

The amendment states Natchez Enterprises will pay the City of Natchez $50,000 to extend its lease for three months and gives the developers a second option to extend the lease for another three months for another $50,000.

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“(In the event of) failure (of Natchez Enterprises) to do this the city has the option to terminate the agreement,” City Attorney Everett Sanders read from the amendment in open session.

Sanders said the payments of $50,000 from Natchez Enterprises to the City of Natchez would be nonrefundable.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard and Ward 2 Alderman James “Ricky” Gray voted against the motion, which was made by Ward 3 Alderman Bob Pollard and seconded by Wart 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis.

Dillard did not attend the executive session. He said he thought the board could possibly be liable for actions taken in executive session because those actions in closed sessions are not reflected in the minutes and those conversations can be considered hearsay.

Dillard said Natchez Enterprises has not fulfilled other sections of the original lease, which might void the lease, regardless of the amendment.

“We continue to be badgered by this sort of misdefinition,” Dillard said of the lease language.

“I don’t see how (the city) can go forward with this (lease); the terms, scope of work agreement and parties have all changed.”

The amendment and discussion also cleared up the timeframe of the current lease, Sanders said.

Sanders said the current lease is for a 50-year period.

A 49-year extension option is available only in the event that the city requests the state legislature to pass local and private legislation to authorize to the extension.

“The (extension) cannot be exercised prior to the opening the casino,” Sanders said.

Also, the amendment requires developers to meet specific benchmarks of progress by specific dates, Sanders said.

Sanders said a copy of the amendment will be made public once it is executed.

Sanders addressed why the board met in executive session with the developers.

“(The casino) is part of industrial development, and state law allows (executive session) for those reasons,” Sanders said.

“Persons discussing business plans have information they don’t want in public for competitors to see and undermine their efforts.”

The executive session caused the meeting to begin 25 minutes late.

Former Adams County attorney Marion Smith and former city attorney Walter Brown urged the board at the start of the open session to develop a park at the Roth Hill site.

In other business from Tuesday’s meeting:

4 City Engineer David Gardner said the Mississippi Department of Transportation is trimming its grass-cutting services in Natchez on the medians along U.S. 61 and other highways.

Gardner said MDOT formerly cut grass along highways six times a year but has recently decided it can afford to cut the grass only three times a year.

Gardner said the city has the alternative options of contracting out the cuttings or using public works to cut the grass and having MDOT reimburse the city for the price of three cuttings.

Mayor Jake Middleton recommended the board leave the cuttings in MDOT’s hands, but that MDOT should not continue to plant trees and add landscaping, such as the new crepe myrtles, if the agency cannot maintain them.

“If you’re going to do all this work you need to talk to the municipality and see if they can handle it,” Middleton said.

4 Architects Andrew Smith and Dale Riser of Beard and Riser Architects presented plans to improve the Natchez Youth Center in Ward 2.

The plan includes a walking trail with pavilions and a new community building at the park site.

Smith said the project could cost between $300,000 and $400,000, but that they could likely secure a zero-match grant based on the area’s layout and demographics.

“The function of that (current) space doesn’t accommodate public,” Riser said. “It’s a nice park. It needs one jewel building.”

Dillard and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said they wanted to make sure the park would not interfere with the interlocal effort for a recreation complex.

Gray said the Ward 2 project would not cost the city any money.

“(Interlocal recreation) hasn’t stopped (the city) from improving Duncan Park and other areas,” Gray said. “This (park) is for people on the north side of town.”

Smith and Riser said they would ask for a resolution at the board’s April 26 meeting to move forward with their proposal.

4 The board voted to declare approximately 10 residential lots as a nuisance for neglecting to cut the grass.

The vote, which passed unanimously, allowed the city to cut the lots that were not voluntarily fixed and to penalize those owners with a fine.

Nix said he has a list of 177 repeat offenders with overgrown lots, which is defined as lawns with grass higher than 12 inches.

A public hearing was called on the issue at the meeting, but no one spoke.