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Plans for old depot restaurant progressing

NATCHEZ — Local film producers and the City of Natchez are moving forward with an agreement to develop the old train depot and former Cock of the Walk restaurant on Broadway Street into a restaurant and entertainment venue.

City of Natchez officials voted unanimously to negotiate lease terms for the city-owned depot to filmmakers Tate Taylor and John Norris of Church Hill Variety LCC during a Tuesday Meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

Once a lease is signed, Church Hill Variety will have 180 days to complete the project, Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said.

The previous administration initially accepted a proposal for the depot project from Church Hill Variety in December before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RFP suggests the lease be approximately $36,000 per year with up to $300,000 credited back to the lessee in exchange for any capital improvements made to the facility.

“Obviously, everything stopped during the pandemic and it took a little while to get everything back on track,” Gibson said. “During that time, we had an election and change of administration. After all of that, one of the very first things we did once we got started in office just a few weeks ago is get this moving back to the top of the radar. The depot is too important of a property owned by the city just to be sitting there. We are glad to be moving forward on that project again.”

Taylor, the director and producer of films such as “The Help,” “Get on Up,” “Ma,” and “Breaking News in Yuba County,” — which was just filmed in Natchez last year — and his partner Norris said Tuesday that the economic recession caused by COVID-19 slowed the progression of their plans.

However, Norris said the pandemic would not last forever and when it is over people would come out of their houses and be ready to “party on the bluff.”

In a presentation to the board, Norris said their plans for the depot include adding public restrooms and a refreshment vendor that will be accessible from outside the building and serve high-quality street food from the restaurant inside.

Norris said further enhancement plans for the bluff include an outdoor movie screen, entertainment stage, a children’s play area and splash pad in addition to their plans to open other nearby restaurants in the former Smoot’s Grocery and Steampunk Coffee Roasters on Broadway and High streets.

Taylor introduced Sarah Sookraj, the new general manager for Churchill Variety LLC, and Chef Ashley Allen, to the board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Allen, who is native to the Virgin Islands, will be acting as the executive chef alongside Jackson chef Nick Wallace for the new restaurant chain, dubbed Churchill Variety.

“We very much want to make (the bluff) a place for families, all families of Natchez,” Taylor said. “During this COVID crisis, as much as we’ve shut down, one of the things I think is beautiful is how much the bluff is as a refuge. Everybody is there exercising, hanging and playing football. It’s a really beautiful thing to find in a crisis. We want the best for Natchez and we want to turn the Depot into a multi-use family space.”