Sunday focus: City still working on details for depot, bluff project

Published 12:20 am Sunday, November 2, 2014

(Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

(Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Bluff landscape could change in the coming year if city leaders can arrange pieces of a funding puzzle to build a farmers market and open-air pavilion.

One of those pieces of the puzzle includes a change in how the city would handle a proposed land agreement with project partner Alcorn State University.

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

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Initially the city planned to lease Alcorn the former pecan factory site, which the city purchased back from private developers in 2012. The city had sold the land to the developers approximately six years prior.

But the current plans to lease an area of the bluff have hit a roadblock.

Funding guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is expected to provide Alcorn with the funding, have necessitated the city deeding, or selling, the property instead of leasing, Mayor Butch Brown said.

The deed, Brown said, would have heavy restrictions to prevent the project from being used for other purposes.

“If it’s not used for those agreed upon uses, that land comes back to the city,” Brown said. “It will have very restrictive uses.”

The change from a lease to a deed was discussed briefly Monday during a work session when Community Development Director James Johnston and City Attorney Hyde Carby updated members of the Board of Aldermen on the project.

Johnston told members of the board that USDA officials in Washington were in agreement with the deed, and that Alcorn officials said they were still planning on moving forward with the project.

Carby told board members a 99-year lease on the property, which had been previously discussed, would be a problem for the city.

“It becomes a problem because we have to charge fair market value for it,” Carby said. “But rather than outright deed it, we put in a reverter clause.”

That clause, Brown said, would put the land back in the city’s hands if the project didn’t come to fruition or was used for any other purpose other than the original outlined plan.

That plan includes constructing an elevated structure in the style of a railroad platform and would house the farmers market, but would also include a pavilion that could be used for entertainment venues, such as the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, Brown said.

The plan at one time included using the former railroad depot site for some of those venues, but Brown said the proposals have since been split into two different projects.

The depot will now house members of Alcorn’s Entrepreneurial Academy, as well as contain office space for others organizations and companies, Brown said.

Johnston told members of the board the approval of the deed would likely come before the board as early as December, if not January and that all plans for the project will still need to get various approvals, including from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Historic Preservation Commission.

MDAH Historic Preservation Division Director Jim Woodrick said he received an initial notice from Carby earlier this week stating the city was considering selling the various portions of land on the bluff.

The property was deemed a Mississippi landmark by MDAH in 2007. Because of that designation, MDAH has to issue proper permits to allow for construction on the designated sites.

MDAH rejected a permit request in 2007 from a development company seeking to build condos on the site, citing concerns about the safety of building on the site.

The initial notice for the possible sale of the land, Woodrick said, didn’t contain sufficient information about the project. He said MDAH planned to contact the city to request a formal notice of intent to sell the property, along with more information about the work planned for the site.

“We’d like to know what the use is because with a historic property let’s say, for example, it’s a school building well if the new owner plans to demolish it, we would have a problem there,” Woodrick said. “It may not be an issue at all, but we’ll need some more information first.”

Members of the board of aldermen also say they want more information about the details of the deed agreement before making any decisions.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who represents the ward in which the land is located, said she wants to handle the situation similarly to how the board handled approving the lease for Magnolia Bluffs Casino on Roth Hill Road.

“We actually sat down with the contracts of the casino deal where we highlighted things and asked questions of the people from casino, and I think that’s the best way to get an understanding of everything,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “I want to have a firm understanding of exactly what is in the contract and have someone from the project take us through every single detail.”

Following those discussions, Arceneaux-Mathis said she’d also like the city to host public hearings where residents can come listen to a walkthrough of the project and get any questions they may have answered.

“We really need to be letting people know in advance where we’re going and what’s going to happen,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “I want everyone to understand the contractual language behind the project, because I think everyone will benefit from that.”

Alderman Tony Fields said he believes any sale of city property needs be discussed thoroughly by the board, but especially property on the bluff and riverfront.

“That river is our greatest asset and that property is just very, very important,” Fields said. “I think we should do everything in our power to make sure we have the right things in place to preserve that property in case something happens.”

Alderman Dan Dillard said he would like to hear more from the city attorney and mayor regarding the funding stipulations tied to the deed instead of a lease.

“I would certainly like to find out what the differences are and what does one have advantage of than the other or what are the implications tied to both?” Dillard said. “I don’t know that I have an immediate concern with the decision, but I certainly would like more information.”

Alderman Mark Fortenbery said he would like to review the restrictions attached to the deed to ensure the city wouldn’t be left regretting the deal later down the road.

“The whole deal concerns me until I read something more on the restrictions,” Fortenbery said. “I would like to take a better look at it all before we do anything else.”

Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith said she feels more discussion is needed on the project, whether the land is leased or deeded.

“I think there are a lot of scenarios we haven’t been educated on, and there are just to many unknowns at this point,” Smith said. “It’s a big deal to sell that land or lease it, and it could be that it’s a great project, but I feel like I don’t have enough information about it all at this point.

“I think a meeting with all parties involved, the city attorney and others would certainly be a positive thing to make sure we’re all informed before we make any decisions.”

Alderman Ricky Gray, who wasn’t at the work session Monday, said he was unfamiliar with the developments of the project and believed more discussion with the board and members of the community is needed.

“We went through this before with that piece of property, and I would like to see us bring everyone together and talk this thing through,” said Gray, referring to a plan in 2007 to build condos on that land. “I would like to see us get more members of the community involved because they’re going to get involved anyway, so we might as well get them involved on the front end.”