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Despite being stripped from bill, visitor center promised funds

 

NATCHEZ — While the state Legislature did not approve an special appropriation in its special session Monday, the Natchez Visitor Reception Center will still receive $100,000 in state funding for next fiscal year, city leaders said Tuesday.

The Legislature met Monday in a special session that lasted into the night to make decisions about budget items, including funding for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The state has appropriated $150,000 or more in previous years for the center, which is owned by the City of Natchez and is also a state welcome center.

Facing budget constraints and the need for $4 billion in road and bridge repairs, Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said lawmakers were forced to cut the visitor center’s funding to $100,000.

Simmons is chair of the Senate subcommittee that handles MDOT appropriations. His counterpart in the House, Rep. Charles Busby, R-Jackson, did not want to approve the MDOT budget with any earmarks. Simmons said he met with MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath, and McGrath agreed to make the funds available in the MDOT budget.

The City of Natchez would essentially still receive MDOT funding as in years past, but the budget bill did not include language specifically appropriating the funds.

Simmons said he thinks it is important the state support the visitor center, because it serves as a state welcome center and is a gateway for visitors coming to Mississippi from Louisiana.

“It entertains a lot of visitors, and it is a good way of informing those visitors about Mississippi,” Simmons said. “We’re facing budget constraints and in addition need $4 billion for repairs to roads and bridges, and citizens and policymakers on the local and state level have not seen fit to increase revenue to take care of that, so we’re strapped for dollars, and (MDOT) needs all the pennies they have, but because of the role (the Natchez visitor center) plays, we wanted to see what we could do.”

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, met with Simmons about the visitor center in an effort to ensure the center received some funding. Dearing said the state funding is critical to the visitor center’s budget.

Mayor Darryl Grennell, Tourism Director Jennifer Ogden Combs and Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond met with lawmakers Monday to explain visitor center operations and how the funding factors into the overall budget.

“I appreciate Mayor Grennell, (Jennifer) Ogden (Combs) and Kathleen (Bond) coming up to Jackson,” Dearing said. “They met with all the parties involved, and I think that really helped.”

Combs said she is grateful for whatever support the state can give the city to assist the visitor center.

“We certainly would like and have relied on $150,000 in the past and throughout this year,” she said. “But we are certainly grateful.”

Both Grennell and Combs have said if the funding is reduced, the city will have to carefully plan its budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year to make up for the lost funding.

“It will take some effort on looking where we can cut back on,” Combs said. “It’s really good we know this before we are deep into the city and the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission working on their budgets. It will definitely take some creativity and careful budgeting on everyone’s part.”