Are Natchez visitor center funds from state drying up?

Published 12:53 am Sunday, February 5, 2017


NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez will receive this year from the state  $150,000 — approximately $50,000 less than last year — for the operations and maintenance of the Natchez Visitor Reception Center.

Even that money is becoming more difficult to come by each year, officials say.

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City and tourism leaders are set to meet Monday to discuss options going forward for the ownership and management of the city-owned visitor center, which also serves as a state welcome center and headquarters for the Natchez National Historical Park.

On Friday, the Natchez Board of Aldermen approved a memorandum of agreement to receive a $150,000 grant through the Mississippi Development Authority for the center.

The money is essentially an appropriation through the state Legislature from the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s budget that is given to MDA to be used as a grant, said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez.

The money has been handled that way for the past few years, but was previously just an appropriation from the Legislature and the funding was treated like that of every other welcome center in the state, Johnson said.

“It became a problem for somebody,” Johnson said. “So they stopped doing that. When I was chair of transportation, I was about to get it for the transportation budget. It stopped for a year. And it became apparent that if MDOT doesn’t own it, they don’t think MDOT should pay for it. … We worked out a deal to get it as a grant for MDA.

“But it’s becoming more and more problematic to get the funding.”

Discussion about the future of the building has mainly revolved around two potential solutions — transferring ownership of the building to either the state or the National Park Service.

The visitor center in Natchez is the only welcome center in Mississippi not owned by the state.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Johnson said. “We are one of the major gateways in and out of Louisiana to Mississippi and one of the best welcome centers in the state, but we can’t get the state to take it over,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he brings up the ownership and the visitor center funding every legislative session, but it has yet to gain much traction.

“If state money wasn’t so tight, I think we would have an easier time,” he said. “In this welcome center, the National Park Service operates as well, so one of the arguments the state makes is that the National Park Service should take it over.

“We have had the luxury of working it out, but now we have to get down to the nuts and bolts of trying to work something else out.”

Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond deferred comment about NPS’ potential ownership of the center until after Monday’s meeting, saying any comments would be premature and speculative prior to the to discussion.

With the city already operating under budget constraints, Mayor Darryl Grennell told the aldermen Friday it was imperative the city find a solution for the visitor center.

“It’s imperative that we work diligently to get the visitor center under the either the state or the National Park Service,” he said.

Natchez Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs said the city anticipated receiving $150,000 in the budget this year because the amount was finalized in the previous legislative session.

But what less money means for the visitor center in coming fiscal years, Combs said is unclear.

Combs deferred comment on a best-case scenario for the visitor center until after Monday’s meeting to discuss options. She said it is crucial the city soon find a long-term solution for the center, which has an increasing number of repair issues including leaks that have poured water into the building.

“Like (Rep. Johnson) said (at the recent legislative breakfast), this is something we can’t wait to address,” Combs said. “Even if the center stays with the city, the city is going to have to look at where that additional funding is going to come from.”