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City, legislators working on Margaret Martin plans

City leaders are currently deciding the future of Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center as they begin the process of selling the property, while state legislators seek to allocate $6 million in funding for repairs. The Natchez Board of Aldermen didn’t vote on a proposal by Natchez Mayor Butch Brown earlier this month to place the property on the surplus list. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

City leaders are currently deciding the future of Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center as they begin the process of selling the property, while state legislators seek to allocate $6 million in funding for repairs. The Natchez Board of Aldermen didn’t vote on a proposal by Natchez Mayor Butch Brown earlier this month to place the property on the surplus list. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

By Devonte Demby & Nita McCann

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Efforts to begin the process to sell Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center are ongoing, even as state legislators lobby for $6 million in funding for repairs.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown is currently making efforts to move Margaret Martin, which the city owns, to the surplus property list.

Brown said in order for the city to attempt to sell the Mississippi Landmark, it has to be declared as a surplus first.

However, moving the center to a surplus property does not mean the city will sell it.

“It’s a very expensive building to own and maintain and it doesn’t produce income,” Brown said. “The cost of ownership is overwhelming.”

Brown said he currently has someone interested in purchasing the property, but would not disclose any information

about the prospective buyer.

Brown called for a vote at the Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting earlier this month to move the property as a surplus.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery made a motion to accept, but no vote was taken because of lack of a second from any other board member.

Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith told Brown that board members needed more information on the purchaser and their plans for the historic building.

Smith reaffirmed her comments earlier this week, saying one of her main concerns is if the potential buyer will incorporate the Natchez Festival of Music into their plans.

“We are going to have to look at the buyers plan and weigh both sides of the coin,” Smith said. “If they are not in favor of keeping (the Natchez Festival of Music), then we are going to have to see what we can do.”

However, Brown said the proposed purchaser has no immediate plans and things will continue how they currently are at the center.

“The school system will house and host all recreation needs that are currently at the center,” Brown said.

As city officials continue discussing the potential sale of the property, a bill that would authorize $6 million in general obligation bonds to help refurbish Margaret Martin has been referred to a Senate committee for consideration.

No date has yet been set for the Senate Public Properties Committee to consider the measure, Senate Bill 2455.

Sen. Kelvin Butler, who introduced the bill, said that “the bill is still alive and well, but we (legislators) consider fiscal matters toward the end of the session.

The House Public Properties Committee’s consideration of the bill “is probably two or three weeks down the road,” Butler said.

Butler, D-Magnolia, does not view the bill as an all-or-nothing proposal.

“If we can get, say, $2 million approved, we can at least get the ball rolling (on the Martin repairs),” he said.

Butler said he was not aware, as of Friday, of Brown’s proposal to declare the Martin School building surplus property and sell it to a private developer.

How would that sale impact the issuance of bonds?

“I would need to find out more about that before I could comment on it,” Butler said.

But City Attorney Hyde Carby stated that “getting that money would be contingent on that property remaining public property.”

Senate veteran Bob Dearing, also a Martin High graduate, said getting a revenue bill is sometimes easier said than done. A similar bill failed to pass during the 2014 session. Three-fifths of legislators in both houses must approve the bill in order for it to pass.

“There are so many other pieces of legislation to consider,” Dearing said. “But Sen. Butler sits on the committee, so it will at least be considered.”

Mary Lessley, president of the Natchez Festival of Music, is among those watching the bill’s progress with interest.

“Really, it would cost more than $6 million to do all (the repairs and renovations) that building needs,” Lessley said. “But it would certainly be a beginning point.

“Our goal is for it to be one of the finest performing arts centers, bringing in all kinds of performers throughout the year. And it would be a boost to the local economy.”

Dearing, one of the Festival of Music’s supporters, said the building needs lots of repairs, including fixing leaks and replacing windows, among other things.

The building cost the city $166,900 in repairs and renovations last fiscal year, said Donnie Holloway, Natchez city clerk.

That included $72,000 for roof repair alone.

The city does not charge the Festival of Music for use of the building, but school alumni and festival supporters contribute their time and talents to repairing and cleaning the facility, Lessley said.

Since the Festival of Music moved in in 1999, volunteers from those groups worked to replace windowpanes and to replace bricks missing from the building’s façade. They replaced seat cushions and stage curtains, and refurbished the facility’s kitchen, restrooms and break room, among other projects, Lessley said.

“I hope that this building can continue to house the Festival of Music,” Lessley said. “We want it to always be our home.”