Looking for directions: City discusses future of Natchez visitor center

Published 1:58 am Tuesday, February 7, 2017


NATCHEZ — With limited funding available, the future of the Natchez Visitor Reception Center is uncertain, but for now, officials are casting a wide net to find a permanent solution.

City of Natchez, National Park Service and tourism officials met Monday to discuss future ownership and management of the city-owned building at the intersection of John R. Junkin Drive and Canal Street. The center also serves as a state welcome center and headquarters for the Natchez National Historical Park.

Email newsletter signup

The city will receive $150,000 this year from the state for operations and maintenance costs at the visitor center. That amount is less than it has been in recent years, and officials say the state money is increasingly difficult to obtain.

Potential solutions proposed by officials include a transfer of ownership of the center from the city to either the State of Mississippi or the National Park Service.

Contrary to what officials have said in the past, Natchez is not the only city in the state that owns its welcome center, Natchez Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs said at Monday’s meeting. The state does not own the welcome center in Greenville, Combs said, but pays for certain aspects of its operations.

Natchez receives funding through a Mississippi Development Authority grant for the visitor center. The grant comes from the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s budget and is given to MDA for the grant. MDA also pays the city $54,000 each year to rent space for the state welcome center in the building, Combs said.

Combs said she has had discussions with state officials about the matter, but said a lack of clarity exists about funding other welcome centers receive, from which agency grants it and to whom the centers are responsible.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen agreed Monday that city officials need to discuss funding mechanisms of the visitor center and other state welcome centers with MDOT officials.

Of critical concern, Combs said, is what further decreased funding or no funding at all from the state could mean for visitor center operations.

The center is 20 years old and has serious issues, including a constantly leaking roof, an outdated heating and air-conditioning system, loose bricks in center’s floor that are a safety hazard and other concerns.

“That combined with the fact that (Rep. Robert Johnson) said it is highly unlikely that we will be getting the appropriation we have been getting is one of the reasons I’m glad we are having this conversation,” Combs said.

The visitor center houses a handful of different operations, including the state, NPS, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission and the city’s Office of Tourism Management.

The park service pays 52 percent of operating and maintenance costs at the center, with the city covering the other 48 percent and other tenants paying rent.

Natchez National Historic Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond offered little hope Monday that NPS would be interested in taking on another building.

The city and the park service have had a conversation on and off for the past 10 years about transferring ownership of the center, Bond said.

While that was the direction the center was headed, the park service was up against sequestration and budget cuts, and those plans have yet to come to fruition.

The park service is known for its exceptional facility maintenance, Bond said, but given budget constraints and uncertain funding of the center, NPS would not likely take on the center.

“I’ve mostly pushed back about owning a great big building I can’t afford to upkeep,” Bond said.

Additionally, the park service as a whole is already facing $12 billion in deferred maintenance at park facilities nationwide. NPS also follows strict guidelines for facilities management and projects out at least five-year plans for properties and has to prove funding can be maintained.

Since 2015, NPS has operated under the “Freeze the Footprint” plan that brings close scrutiny to any potential additions to the park service’s building inventory, Bond said.

“For a 25,000-square foot building on five acres, approval would (likely have to take place at the Washington level),” Bond said.

Any approval, Bond said, would likely hinge on whether the center would receive a congressional appropriation.

Bond said in conversations with other park service officials, questions have been raised about other potential partners at the center. Additionally, questions remain about if NPS took ownership, whether an annual budget increase to the park is possible and if not, would a provisional increase be available until a long-term solution could be found.

Much of that, Bond said, would depend on Natchez’s relationship with its congressional delegation.

City officials pledged to contact legislators to inquire about funding.

Mayor Darryl Grennell said he is traveling to Washington, D.C., later this month and has a meeting set up with Sen. Thad Cochran, who is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to discuss the matter.

The aldermen voted to allow Grennell to submit a letter ensuring state legislators know the city needs to again receive an appropriation next fiscal year, as well as to contact representatives at MDOT, other cities and the Department of Homeland Security to inquire about funding.

In other visitor center news from the meeting, the board approved the dismantling and relocation of the lighted topographical map diorama currently at the visitor center.

The diorama will be moved close to the gift shop in the back part of the center and placed on the wall, Combs said. It will remain fully interactive for visitors.

The pilothouse located in the center will be moved to the location of the diorama and be converted into a space where a staff member can sit behind a desk and greet visitors.

Combs said a flaw in the layout of the center now is that visitors are not immediately greeted by a person welcoming and directing them  through the center. The move should correct that issue and allow the diorama to remain in the center, Combs said.