TIme to transfer? Legislature must approve giving visitor center to National Park Service

Published 12:26 am Sunday, December 9, 2018


NATCHEZ — City leaders have been considering transferring ownership of the Natchez Visitor Reception Center to the National Park Service for approximately a decade.

Transferring ownership, city leaders say, would relieve the city of the financial burden of the facility at 640 S. Canal St., Natchez, and provide much-needed repairs to the building.

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One last hurdle is that transfer of the property requires approval of the Mississippi Legislature.

At a legislative work session held Thursday with Natchez and Adams County elected officials, other area leaders and area legislators, legislative approval of the transfer was high on the list of priorities expressed by Natchez leaders for the upcoming 2019 legislative session.

Negotiations on donating the 25,000 square-foot Natchez Visitor Center to the National Park Service began in 2006, said Kathleen Bond, National Park Service superintendent.

“The park service is just waiting on this local and private bill,” Bond said during Thursday’s meeting. “That’s really the last hurdle left to the donation.”

During the Nov. 27 meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen, however, one Natchez alderwoman introduced what could be another potential speed bump into negotiations.

Another potential hurdle

As the city was prepared Nov. 27 to request legislative permission to donate the Natchez Visitors Center, Ward 1 Alderwoman, Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, asked if the National Park Service might remit its one-third of land from the potential sale of a property known as the beanfield near Natchez High School donated by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Arceneaux-Mathis asked if the city’s donation of the visitor center would be a fair trade for the National Park Service’s one-third of proceeds from surplus property that came with land purchased for the Natchez Trace Parkway.

In 2015, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to transfer the beanfield land and the property on which the VFW sits adjacent to Walmart to the City of Natchez. Legislation required that revenues from selling the VFW land be divided three ways — a third to the city for riverfront development, a third for National Park Service construction projects and a third for Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Arceneaux-Mathis said she does not want to hold up the process nor does she want to dissuade the National Park Service from moving forward with the deal.

Mathis said she simply thought it was best to pose the question before moving forward.

“All it was, was a negotiation question,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t mean you let the deal go.”

Bond said the park service would spend its one-third of the proceeds from the land sale on National Park Service projects, and Bond said she doesn’t want to forfeit those funds.

“We respect the legislation passed for the sale of the Natchez Trace Parkway and don’t want to do anything that would violate the spirit of (Sen. Thad) Cochran’s arrangement,” Bond said.

Savings for city coffers

Mayor Darryl Grennell said he would like to see the donation move forward. Grennell said the annual cost of keeping the visitor center was especially difficult this fiscal year because an annual payment by the state of $100,000 for maintenance was withheld this year.

“This (transfer of the property) will benefit the city because we don’t have the money to maintain that building, which is now 20 years old,” Grennell said. “That would help tremendously with maintenance and going in and enhancing it.”

Future of facility under park service

Bond said she envisions a 20-year plan for making the building a National Park visitors center with educational programs, history preservation and park service amenities.

“The National Park Service is very good at managing facilities,” Bond said. “What this gives us is a headquarters, administration offices and a premium visitors center. It gives us a stable base of operations.”

Educational opportunities

Bond said the visitors center also would help with curriculum-based programs.

“We’re hoping this not only will help visitors but also helps us connect to the outside world. It’s a great site for schools that could really enhance our education opportunities,” Bond said. “The center is 20 years old now and it’s time to re-envision it.”

The historic Forks of the Road slave trade site is one story Bond said she would like to tell before it is erased from history. Bond said the tragic story of slave trafficking is often told piecemeal and is close to being obliterated all together after the paving of the four-lane D’Evereux Road.

“We have to go back and tell the truth about slavery before we move forward,” she said. “It involves the best of times and the worst of times. It’s been piecemealed with some pieces left out.”

Natchez aldermen are expected to consider during Tuesday’s meeting, adopting a resolution asking the Legislature to pass the measure allowing transfer of the visitor center property to the National Park Service.