Legislators pushing for $6M in funds; Renovations to Margaret Martin included in bill

Published 12:11 am Sunday, March 2, 2014

NATCHEZ — A bill being reviewed by the Legislature could mean a $6 million facelift for the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

The funding was included in the bill, which would allow the state to borrow $95.9 million, after lobbying efforts by the Natchez Festival of Music.

Festival board member and former Democratic state Sen. Bob Dearing pushed for the funding in Jackson. He said it would be used for a complete renovation of the center. The $6 million figure, Dearing said, is based on an estimate by architect Larry Albert of Hattiesburg.

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Dearing said he met with Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, to request the funding.

“(The festival) has shown that they have done incredible work there with very few resources,” Johnson said.

Johnson added he believes a renovated Martin center has the potential to draw many people to Natchez for the arts.

Johnson introduced a standalone bill for the Martin funding in the House.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Sam Mims, Angela Cockerham and America Chuck Middleton, was included in the larger bond bill.

The bond bill passed the House and Senate in different forms and will now go to conference, where lawmakers will try to reach an agreement.

Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, along with Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, and Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, voted against the Senate bill.

Dearing said he was surprised by Sojourner’s vote, given the Martin center is in her hometown.

“It not only includes $6 million for Margaret Martin, it includes … (funding) for repairs and renovations for community colleges, rural water bonding money that is so needed in places like Roxie, which is having a lot of water problems, and other small towns,” Dearing said. “It also includes money for the Mississippi Development Authority to recruit industry to the state.

“It was a very significant bill, not just for the Margaret Martin (funding), but otherwise, too.”

Efforts to reach Sojourner for comment were unsuccessful.

Johnson said he is hopeful the Martin funding will be included in the bill’s final form.

“Bond bills in the Legislature are very fluid,” Johnson said. “Things change day to day.”

If the entire $6 million is not included, Johnson said he is hopeful some funding for Martin will be in the bill to get the renovation project started.

Dearing also met with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to make a case for the funding.

“He listened very attentively and asked a few questions,” Dearing said. “He will make the final decision on what goes into the Senate side of the bill.”

The Martin center is a Mississippi landmark and housed Natchez High School from 1927 until 1961, and classrooms were used there until 1963.

Festival of Music representatives have said the festival has spent approximately $600,000 for repairs and renovations to the city-owned building since the festival began leasing it in 1999.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has awarded approximately $300,000 for repairs to the building.