Depot move is shameful, needs to be reconsidered

Published 1:58 am Sunday, November 15, 2015

Three Natchez aldermen and the mayor are blatantly trying to game the system to get a pet project completed and, perhaps, help a friend out in the process.

The municipal sleight of hand involves the former Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Freight Depot on the bluff at Broadway Street.

The depot is a beautiful, historic building that the city allowed to become a blighted spot on the bluff.

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Several years ago the city began an elaborate scheme to begin using “other people’s money,” as Mayor Butch Brown likes to say, to repair the building.

What followed was an elaborately baffling scheme that would have put a farmer’s market in the former depot and built a garden on top of the most uniquely Natchez piece of ground on the planet. Fortunately, that plan died for lack of a funding partner to a Mississippi Department of Transportation grant.

Later the public was told the building would be used for leasing office space — another brilliantly bad idea that too was quashed.

The MDOT grant initially required the city evict the then tenants — Old South Trading Post and the Cock of the Walk Restaurant — allegedly because the funds couldn’t be used to restore a building that was to be used for commercial purposes.

The latest plan for the building involves the city leasing it to someone who is squarely in the business of making money.

Exactly how fixing up a derelict former train depot is on MDOT’s list of “to-dos” is a head scratcher, but that horse has left the barn and Natchez is already in the middle of an $879,000 restoration of the exterior of the building using MDOT grant money.

The project initially aimed at fully renovating the building, inside and out, but had to be changed when bids came back too high.

No problem. We’ll just game the system a bit.

What happened next is a bit fuzzy, but apparently the mayor, former city attorney Walter Brown and his client Warren Reuther (who owns the Grand Hotel and Monmouth and whose company controls the city’s convention center through contract) figured out a solution to everyone’s problems; they only needed to write up the details and convince three aldermen to go along with the plan.

The solution is simple.

Leave the MDOT grant contract in place, but begin the process of allowing Reuther to lease the building for the next 15 years in exchange for his renovating the interior, which the city says it cannot afford to do on its own. Perhaps some city leaders forgot they told us the budget this year would have a $2.2 million surplus, more than enough to renovate the interior of the depot out of city coffers.

Do MDOT officials know the city just signed an agreement to privately lease the building as soon as the MDOT-paid work is done?

In a vote this week that — for no apparent reason — split along racial lines and was tied 3-3 until Mayor Brown voted to break the tie, the city entered into a long lease with Reuther’s newly created LLC, Mississippi River Visitor Depot LLC.

When Reuther pays for the interior renovations, he gets the cost of all of the renovations taken off his lease. The city would, by its own agreement net only $627.62 per month for the building. What’s worse, all of that money cannot be used for the general fund; it must be put into a maintenance fund for the building. The city would be liable for any repairs over $500!

The wording of the agreement even indicates any costs Reuther has in financing the renovations will be taken off his lease payments, too.

What the city — or the public for that matter — doesn’t seem to know is what exactly is going to be put in the building. None of those details are spelled out clearly in the agreement.

What’s worse is that the mayor seems to have handpicked Reuther, and three aldermen just went along with it.

How do they know someone else in Natchez wouldn’t have made a better deal, if given the chance? They don’t. They simply chose to move out and make their own deal without any public input or giving anyone else a chance to have a say.

The arrogant move is shameful and needs to be reconsidered.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or