Plans to renovate downtown railroad depot expand

Published 12:11 am Friday, April 5, 2013

NATCHEZ — After a brainstorming session and a tour of the site Thursday, Mississippi State University representatives are hoping to hop on board with the plans to renovate the downtown railroad depot and relocate the Natchez Farmers Market to the bluff.

Preliminary plans include constructing an open-air pavilion for the Alcorn State extension program’s farmers market and turning the depot into a public product development facility with a demonstration kitchen.

Those plans may also include relocating MSU’s Adams County Extension Service office from Carthage Point Road to the depot.

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MSU Extension Service Director Gary Jackson and Division of Agriculture, Forestry, Veterinary Medicine Vice President Gregory Bohach toured the depot and the bluff area for the first time following a meeting with Mayor Butch Brown, Alcorn officials, the project’s architects and other planning committee members.

“It’s a phenomenal project,” Jackson said.

Bohach said Mississippi State would first need a business plan to work through the numbers of the proposed approximately $2 million project.

“We would need a sustainable business plan if we’re going to be involved, especially financially,” he said.

Alcorn’s School of Agriculture, Research, Extension and Applied Science Dean Barry Bequette said the estimated cost for Alcorn’s portion of the project is $1.2 million. He said the university has $500,000 committed to the project and is hoping to obtain more funding in lieu of scaling down the plans for the farmers market.

Alcorn’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Bequette said. Mississippi State does not have access to those funds, he said, but there may be USDA discretionary funds that Alcorn and MSU could obtain through a cooperative effort for the project.

The city, Community Development Director James Johnston said, should know before the end of the month whether it will receive funding from the Mississippi Department of Transportation for the project.

The city has allocated $125,000 that will be used as the city’s 20-percent match for $500,000 in Transportation Alternatives Program funds to renovate the depot if the grant is awarded.

The depot’s space would have a demonstration kitchen that could be used for educational or commercial purposes. The depot would also house public restrooms, meeting and possible office and classroom space.

Mississippi State and Alcorn State are hoping to house joint educational opportunities in the depot, from distance learning to hands-on continuing education courses.

The depot will also serve as a visitor reception center for the Natchez Trails Project, which will be integrated into the redevelopment of the area.

The demonstration kitchen could be rented for product development purposes, educational and entrepreneurial training, said Ruth Nichols, Alcorn’s assistant vice president for educational and community partnership.

Alcorn has hired architect William Mills of Mills and Mills Architects as the architect to design the new farmers market. Mills presented two different layouts for the proposed open-air pavilion at the meeting. He said he is awaiting more direction from those involved before more detailed plans are drawn.

Given the scope of the project, Brown said $2 million is “nothing” compared to funding for other projects the city has put together.

Brown said he also believes that with the help of Mississippi State President Mark E. Keenum, the project could “embrace” the White House into first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.

“I think we can write our ticket on getting a poster-child program put together for the White House,” he said.

Brown said the project is also on the radar for Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran. Congressional help, he said, could expand the project beyond its current scope.

“If we had this effort and focus set out before Congress, it would attract a lot more bees to the honey than what we’re trying to do here,” Brown said.