More railroad depot proposals sought

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, May 18, 2016

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez voted Tuesday to request more proposals for development of the former Mississippi River Valley Railroad Depot on Broadway Street.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith made the motion, saying it was in response to public feedback she received about how the project was originally bid for and awarded to New Orleans hotelier Warren Reuther.

“There are just so many crazy things about that crazy deal,” she said after the meeting. “People have spoken. With public property, they want us to do a public request for proposals, and I agree, I think that’s the proper way to handle it.”

Email newsletter signup

Last year, the board approved leasing the depot to a company owned by Reuther, who has said he plans to turn the depot into a small visitors’ center. The city has come under fire for the perceived lack of transparency in the dealings for the depot.

The city’s agreement with Reuther allowed Reuther to invest money in renovating the historic building, money that would later be applied to the cost of his lease.

A short-term lease was signed last year allowing Reuther to begin working on the building, but work was stopped when resident Gwen Ball sued the city over the agreement, alleging the city failed to follow legal procedure in the lease. The lawsuit was recently dismissed.

The city was expected to sign a long-term lease with Reuther at the end of the renovation, but instead the city will request more proposals from interested developers.

After Smith introduced her motion, Natchez Mayor Butch Brown suggested a qualifications aspect to the request for proposals, which he said is commonly done for high-profile projects.

“You take a request for qualifications, where the individual sends in what he’s done in the past,” he said. “What your ventures have been, something you can look at, talk to, relate to, to show you have the kind of qualifications that will be what we want.”

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard agreed with the suggestion of requiring a list of qualifications from bidders.

He said a qualifications aspect of the request for proposals would allow the city to focus on the serious bidders who had the experience and monetary assets to bring the project to fruition.

“I think a large bank account is going to be the most qualifying factor anyway,” he said during the meeting. “I would support (the) motion to start the process of starting a request for proposals to clear up this cloud and let everyone move forward in a comfortable way.”

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery seconded the motion, which was adopted unanimously.

After the meeting, Smith said her motion was originally intended only for proposals and did not include a qualifications aspect, but is unsure if her motion was recorded in the minutes with or without the qualifications portion.

Smith said she does not think the qualifications aspect of the request for proposals is necessary.

“I don’t know if this is a way to really get them qualified, or to make sure who’s going to get (accepted,)” she said.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said Reuther already has a vested interest in the property’s interior as some initial renovation work has been done.

“Now we have some level of clarity now that the election (has passed),” Carby said in the meeting. “We need to approach (Reuther) as far as how to proceed.”

Carby said during the meeting if the city chose to award the contract to someone else, it could buy out Reuther’s interest or propose that he take on a partner.

“We will work with Warren and his folks to develop the plan going forward,” Carby said after the meeting.

Smith said later in the day, Carby sent out an email to the aldermen, advising them they may face a lawsuit if they allowed Reuther to invest in the building and then not award him a contract.

Carby declined to comment on the email, saying it was privileged communication.

Reuther said after the April 12 meeting he supports the bid process and said he thinks it would ensure the best development of the depot. Reuther has also said he may be willing to take on a partner for the project.