Margaret Martin center fate discussed

Published 12:09 am Tuesday, March 5, 2013

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Festival of Music may soon be taking over management of the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center, but the question of who is going to pay more than half of the $1 million cost to replace the roof is still center stage.

Mayor Butch Brown, three aldermen and Natchez Festival of Music Guild members came to a general consensus at a work session Monday that the festival would lease the entire building from the city.

The non-profit festival’s lease with the city expired in June 2012. The lease was only for the use of the auditorium and other miscellaneous space.

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Currently, the music festival rents out space to some tenants and the city rents out space to others.

The city pays the utilities for Perfect Fit Studio, which is housed in the center, and a gymnastics group that uses Martin gym.

The new lease would name the music festival as the principal entity leasing the entire center. The festival would also be responsible for utilities and interior maintenance.

The city would continue exterior maintenance.

In exchange for taking over the entire building, Brown said, the festival would have additional space to rent out. City and festival officials agreed that rent for other tenants would have to be raised to market value in order for the festival to be able to upkeep the building if it takes over the management of the center.

Former Sen. Bob Dearing, chairman of the festival’s building committee, said many of those spaces need to be restored because roof leaks have damaged the interior of the building.

Dearing said he asked Sen. Melanie Sojourner, Rep. Robert Johnson and Sen. Kelvin Butler to introduce legislation that would allow bonds to be issued for the $550,000 roof replacement.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History supports the bill, Dearing said. He added he was not sure where the bill currently stands.

Dearing said his initial request was going to be a bonding bill for $135,000 to replace windows, glass, ceilings and make other repairs to the building.

“But after discussing it with the architect, it’s going to be ridiculous for us to try to do anything on the inside until we get the roof fixed,” he said.

Brown said the city would match any monies the festival could come up with for match funds for a grant. Grants that could be used to repair the roof generally carry a 20- to 25-percent cost match.

Festival Guild President Rena Jean Schmieg pointed out that the festival has spent approximately $600,000 for repairs and improvements to building since it began leasing part of the building in 1999.

The festival also provided $22,000 in match funds for a grant the city previously received from the MDAH for the building.

“We’ve put money in on a constant basis, and because of the lack of the roof, windows and gutters, a lot of the rooms that were completely restored in 1999 are in a state of terrible disrepair,” Schmieg said.

Brown asked Auburn Antebellum Home President Clark Feiser to explain how his organization’s lease with the city for Auburn outlines that 25 percent of ticket sales go into an Auburn maintenance fund.

Similarly, Brown said, rent money from other tenants in the performing arts center could go to a maintenance fund for the building.

Ward 3 Sarah Smith and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said they would like to see the rent money put into that maintenance fund.

Smith added that it could be difficult for the non-profit festival to take over as a landlord, and she said she was appreciative of attention and tax dollars the festival brings to Natchez and of the $600,000 the festival has put into the building.

“The building would have probably already fallen down without that,” she said after the meeting.

Dillard said he was most concerned with having someone oversee the entire operation of the performing arts center, so there would be just one party responsible for all of the space.

Brown said that he is not as concerned with the festival’s lease payment, as he is establishing a maintenance fund for the roof.

Brown noted that the city cleaned out drainage pipes that had been blocked when the outdoor atriums were landscaped and repaired a broken water main.

Schmieg said there are electrical and plumbing repairs that are needed to bring those fixtures up to code. She said she would think as the landlord of the building, the city would do that if it is going to lease the building.

“It all comes back to money,” Brown said. “We don’t have the funds.”

Schmieg suggested the $192,000 from the sale of the property around Martin center to the Worley Family Trust be combined with the approximately $175,000 left of the MDAH grant to help fund a roof replacement.

But Brown said after the meeting that he has other plans for the money but declined to give specifics. The money, as voted on by the board of aldermen, will go into the city’s public properties fund. The board will then vote on how to spend the money.

And with an extensive list of repairs needed at other city-owned buildings, Brown said the performing arts center was not No. 1 on his list.

“It was presented here tonight as something that we have to do, but it is something we need to do,” he said. “If you prioritize all the things that need to be done in the city, it is not the top priority.”

The board did not have a quorum, so it could not take any formal action.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, Alderman Ricky Gray and Alderman Mark Fortenbery were not at the meeting.

The city and the festival members agreed to have City Attorney Hyde Carby and festival attorney Bruce Kuehnle compile a first draft of the lease.

In other news from them meeting:

•The board decided in renewing the city’s lease with Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, the rent fee of $585 per month should be reinstated.

NPT has not had a lease for its space in the Natchez Visitor Reception Center for several years, Tourism Director Connie Taunton said. The previous lease outlined $585 per month, but NPT has been paying $312 a month. The Mississippi Welcome Center pays $5,000 a month for space similar to what NPT uses.

•The board discussed the possibility of selling the Logan building beside Cotton Alley most recently used by Magnolia Bluffs Casino as office space, the former Waste Management building and the former health department building.

The idea, Dillard said, would be to sell the buildings as surplus property instead of the city attempting to maintain more properties since it cannot afford to maintain all of its current properties.

Selling the properties, Brown said, would also get them back on the tax roll.