Mayor casts deciding vote to lease railroad depot
Published 12:03 am Friday, November 13, 2015
By Megan Ashley Fink
The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — Mayor Butch Brown cast a tie-breaking vote Thursday in favor of leasing the former railroad depot to a New Orleans hotelier.
Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard voted against awarding a development and lease agreement to Mississippi River Visitor Depot LLC, a company owned by New Orleans Hotel Consultants President Warren Reuther. Reuther’s company also manages the Natchez Convention Center and Natchez Grand Hotel.
The opposing aldermen voiced concerns about maintenance costs, the removal of 24-hour restrooms that were in the original plans for the building and new business competing with the existing city-owned Natchez Visitor Reception Center.
The city is currently renovating the outside of the depot using grant monies from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The board previously accepted an $879,000 bid from Paul Jackson and Sons for the work.
Reuther’s company has engaged R.A. Edgin Construction Company to renovate the interior of the building. The interior renovation will be financed by Reuther’s company.
Reuther’s attorney Walter Brown appeared before the board of aldermen at its Tuesday meeting to request the lease agreement in order to expedite construction.
The agreement was requested by Reuther to allow Reuther’s contractor to attend construction meetings and work in conjunction with the city’s contractor currently renovating the exterior of the depot.
In exchange for investing in the building’s interior, Reuther will receive a credit toward the rent for the building.
The agreement states the term of the lease shall be 15 years with rent at $3,000 per month. The agreement entitles Reuther’s company to a $2,372.38 credit during the 15-year period for construction costs, leaving a net monthly payment to the city of $627.62. Those monthly payments will be deposited into a special depot maintenance fund to be used for maintenance during the lease.
The lease also states the city is liable for any maintenance costs more than $500, which was particularly concerning to Smith.
“I feel $500 is low for us to be responsible for (any maintenance costs) over $500,” Smith said.
Mayor Brown said the agreement is similar to those the city has with other groups.
“The same kind of thing is happening at Auburn and at the city auditorium. This amount of money, the $500, that’s a fluid number … the number was added to mimic the other programs we have in place,” Brown said.
Fortenbery took issue with the fact that a plan for the building was not presented before a lease was requested. Fortenbery said he is concerned the depot visitor center will compete with the existing visitor center on Canal Street.
Mayor Brown cut Fortenbery off saying the depot visitor center would not be in competition with the Natchez Visitor Reception Center.
Once the renovation of the depot is complete, a final lease document will be presented to the board for approval.
The city signed a letter of intent with Reuther’s company in September for the project.
The city originally intended in to turn the depot and surrounding area into a farmers’ market and extension service offices in conjunction with Alcorn State and Mississippi State universities. Restrooms open 24 hours a day were also planned.
When asked by Fortenbery, Nancy Reuther, who was in attendance to represent her husband Warren and the company, said the restrooms would not be open 24 hours.
Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who voted in favor of the agreement along with Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray and Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields, was in support of moving the project along quickly.
“At some point in time we’re going to build a restroom, and it’ll be open 24 hours, and anyone walking the trails, jumping off the bridge, whatever they want to do, will have a restroom there,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.
Nancy Reuther said her interests were in enhancing downtown Natchez. She expressed frustration at the board’s reluctance to sign the agreement.
“How are you going to make (downtown) bigger and more exciting if you don’t have people who want to do something?” she said.
When the time came to vote, Dillard, the last to announce his vote, attempted to continue discussion. But Mayor Brown called Dillard out of order and demanded Dillard cast a vote. Dillard then voted against adopting the agreement.
In other news:
-The board adopted an amended Natchez-Adams County Recreation Commission agreement presented by Adams County. This consolidates management of several city parks and recreational areas into a board comprised of officials from the city of Natchez, Adams County, and the Natchez-Adams School Board. The agreement will now be sent to the attorney general for approval.