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Local, state officials to talk visitor center funding today during special session

NATCHEZ — Natchez officials will meet with state lawmakers in Jackson during today’s special legislative session to prevent funding from being cut to the Natchez Visitor Reception Center.

Mayor Darryl Grennell and Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs will appear before legislators today to explain the need for the $150,000 the state annually allocates for the visitor center, which also serves as a state welcome center.

While the city has received $150,000 in previous years, the center may only receive $100,000 this year, said Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez.

House leadership wanted to completely cut the funding for the city-owned visitor center, but Dearing said he has worked with other lawmakers to include at least a $100,000 appropriation in the state’s budget.

“I am optimistic that we can get that much,” Dearing said.

Even $150,000 is less than the city has received in previous years, and officials contend the state money is increasingly difficult to obtain.

The aging building has numerous issues, including a constantly leaking roof, an outdated heating and air-conditioning system and other problems.

To lose one-third of the current appropriation, Combs said, would have a significant impact on the city.

“It’s going to require really being very careful about budgeting that account and what kind of rents the city is receiving (from tenants) and how they’re managing that account,” Combs said. “Frankly, the budget is predicated on having that money as part of the operations budget.”

Grennell said the city has faced its own budget issues and he is hopeful the state will decide to fund $150,000 for the appropriation.

“The reality is it’s the state’s visitor center, and we really need to get that money, and we really don’t need it to get cut,” Grennell said. “If it’s cut, it will impact the city, and we will have to figure out where we would get the residual money.”

In previous years, the state has sent a check for the sum of the allocation, but now the funding is treated more like a grant, with the city expending funds first and reimbursed later.

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.

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.

City of Natchez, National Park Service and tourism officials have met in recent months 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.

Combs said a movement is still afoot to get the park service to take over ownership of the building.

“From what I understand, there is an ongoing effort … to have the park service take over the building for a number of reasons,” she said. “They know how to manage facilities, they are the primary tenant, and just from a perception point, it would be wonderful for the park service to have the welcome center in Natchez.”