• 66°

Future of former General Hospital building debated

 

NATCHEZ — After hearing concerns from residents in the neighborhood, the Natchez Board of Aldermen postponed action Tuesday regarding the future of the former General Hospital building on Oak Street.

The board decided to host a public hearing on a proposal to turn the city-owned building into a senior living facility at its next meeting on April 25.

The board recently received two proposals to develop the dilapidated city-owned building, one from New Direction Outreach Ministries and another from Jackson-based nonprofit Magnolia Medical Foundation.

A committee comprised of Mayor Darryl Grennell, City Attorney Bob Latham, Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, in whose ward the building is located, and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard, chair of the city’s public properties committee, recommended to the board that the city accept Magnolia Medical’s proposal for review.

Dr. Erica Thompson of Magnolia Medical Foundation gave a presentation on the project and showed photographs of another facility in Jackson with which the foundation’s management team has been involved.

Thompson, a Natchez native who grew up on Oak Street, said the foundation’s goal is to create a safe, resort-style atmosphere with the independent living apartments that would rented to residents age 55 years and older.

With a total investment of $3.4 million, the foundation would acquire the building, renovate it and create approximately 30 one-bedroom apartments and possible a couple of two-bedroom apartments. The foundation would not add any additional buildings to the property, Thompson said.

Having only one-bedroom apartments, Thompson said, would allow the property to prevent excessive visitation by non-residents. Residents would be not be permitted to have after-hours visitors or overnight guests.

Management and security personnel would remain on-site 24 hours a day, Thompson said. Anyone visiting would have to be buzzed in to enter the gated property.

The building would also feature a game room, craft area, theater, computer lounge, fitness center, library, salon, retail, outdoor walking trails and gardens.

Thompson emphasized that the apartments would be for seniors living independently and not part of an assisted living facility.

A handful of residents from the area surrounding the former General Hospital voiced concerns to the board about the potential development.

Residents cited worries about safety, negative impacts on their property value, an increase in crime and expressed apprehension about the project based on negative experiences from when the building previously served as housing.

Oak Street resident Joe Meng, who is also an attorney, said that he believed despite designating the apartments for residents ages 55 years and older, the foundation could not discriminate against younger residents who want to live there.

Thompson said when the parameters for the use of the building are legally set restricting the apartments to only residents 55 years and older, younger individuals would not be permitted to apply.

Meng asked if Magnolia Medical Foundation had experience with any other similar facilities.

Thompson said the Oak Street apartments would be the foundation’s first such project, but the management team has been involved with several similar projects across the state.

“What we said (in this proposal) we are going to deliver,” Thompson said. “We will not allow it to be mishandled (or) mismanaged in any way. We (will) ensure the integrity … of your community will be maintained.

“Being from that community, I understand … the importance of maintaining that environment.”

Meng and other property owners expressed concern that the development would negatively impact their property values in the same way they said Carpenter School Apartments and other housing had.

Myrtle Avenue resident Tom Bailey said he was “very, very” skeptical of the project, saying the residents have “been here before” with a “nice glowing presentation” for a “building that will bring crime to our area.”

Bailey said he would rather see the property turned into a park.

When asked by North Pearl Street property owner Bob Adams, Thompson said rent estimates for the apartments were approximately $670 with utilizes included.

“We want to make it affordable (for seniors) just like us who have worked, and they later feel like they have not prepared (for retirement) as they should have,” Thompson said.

The apartments, Thompson said, would be rented to residents who privately paid for the units, as well as residents who sought rent funding assistance, something that seemed to reinforce concerns of residents there to speak about the development.

“You have to realize, you don’t have $1,000 apartments in Natchez,” Thompson said. “The apartment may be well worth that much, but we also want to make it affordable to our seniors.”

Adams said based on the size of the 24,000-square foot building, he did not see why a brand-new facility would not be built.

“There’s just a whole lot of questions and numbers that just don’t make any sense at all,” Adams said.

“I don’t know why I would spend that much money to rehab an old building.”

Adams requested the board table any action and push the matter to a public hearing for further discussion.

Resident Hayden Petkovsek questioned why Thompson’s foundation would “invest any money in that area.”

Petkovsek said he owns property on Maple Street and has shotgun houses that have been vandalized to the tune of $300,000.

Petkovsek and other residents said they appreciated Thompson’s interest in the community, but would like more details about the project.

Thompson said the building in the condition that it is now and subject to vandalism and criminal activity is more damaging to property values than if the building was renovated to house the apartments.

“As long as it sits there the way it is now, it’s actually doing more damage to your property value than it would be if we brought in $3.4 million,” Thompson said.

Resident Paul Benoist asked Thompson about the status of the project’s financing.

Thompson said the project has private funding sources and is seeking new markets, mixed use and historic tax credits.

Benoist asked if Thompson would be opposed to agreeing to revert the property’s ownership back to the city if a predetermined timeline for the project was not met.

Mayor Grennell clarified that a provision for that was part of the committee’s recommendation to the board.

Benoist also expressed concern about nonprofits that have “cannibalized” the tax base by utilizing public properties but not paying property taxes because they are exempt from such requirements.

Benoist asked Thompson if the foundation would be open to making payments in lieu of taxes aimed at compensating local governments for lost tax revenue because of tax-exempt property ownership.

Thompson said she would take that request and other questions from residents to the foundation’s board.

Grennell requested the public hearing be hosted at the board’s next meeting in order to give Thompson time get answers to residents’ questions.