Board of Aldermen divided on sale of General Hospital property

Published 8:25 pm Monday, June 28, 2021

NATCHEZ — The Natchez  Board of Aldermen on Monday voted down a motion that could have allowed for the sale of the former General Hospital to the owners of The Towers.

The old hospital building is located at 601 W. Oak St., which is adjacent to The Towers property, owned by James and Ginger Hyland.

In accordance with state law, the city can only sell the property at the average of two property appraisals, which is the same process used in the proposed sale of Margaret Martin to the owners of Dunlieth.

However, a motion to seek appraisals for the property failed 3-2 on Monday, with aldermen Billie Joe Frazier, Felicia Irving and Ben Davis voting nay and Alderman Dan Dillard and Valencia Hall voting in favor of the motion.

Alderwoman Sarah Carter-Smith was absent from Monday’s special called meeting.

Last year, the Board reversed a decision made by the previous administration to accept an offer from Magnolia Medical Foundation, a non-profit organization which asked the city to donate the property so it could renovate the facility into a senior living apartment complex.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson broke a 3-3 tie vote to withdraw the proposal in response to a petition signed by more than 50 residents of the neighborhood around the facility objecting to its intended use.

When the previous administration accepted the offer from Magnolia Medical, the Hylands and other residents filed a lawsuit against the city, saying the city did not follow their own Request for Proposal process, meaning the city did not ask for bids, before turning the property over to Magnolia Medical. The city later won the lawsuit in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Frazier pointed out that many of those who opposed the new facility were white and the Founder and Executive Director of Magnolia Medical Foundation Erica Thompson, M.D., is Black.

“It seems to me because a Black person was trying to buy it, they were blocked,” he said.

After the meeting, Frazier said only the people of that neighborhood were opposed to Magnolia Medical’s plans for new facility. He said their opinion does not reflect the overall opinion of the people of Natchez. Frazier also said the Hylands had ample opportunity to buy the building but only decided to act when Magnolia Medical Foundation expressed interest.

“The people in that surrounding area, just those people, were against it,” he said. “… This is no more than a racial game because this is a Black lady trying to do something for the City of Natchez, and she is a Natchezian. … I don’t care what color you are. Right is right and wrong is wrong. A lot of people could’ve bought it but they weren’t interested. The mayor said he is with the citizens of this neighborhood. … Well, I am for the people of Ward 2 and with the citizens of Natchez.”

Irving and Davis said the city should send out another Request for Proposals to sell the facility instead of only considering one offer from the Hylands.

“We should open this back up for bids,” Irving said. “It would only be fair if we allow the public to make their offer. … We never allowed Magnolia Medical to come back with their offer.”

Irving also said the mayor was “redlining” by preventing Magnolia Medical from pursuing their plans for the property.

“The outcome of what Magnolia Medical wanted to do was to stabilize housing for seniors and provide a safe haven for them,” she said. “It would have also brought jobs. … We should allow the opportunity for it to be re-purposed and benefit the community as a whole.”

Dillard argued that Magnolia Medical’s offer was a “no dollar sale” and said with the first RFP the city issued for the property “no legitimate offer” was ever made.

Hall pointed out the board voted in favor of offering Margaret Martin to the owners of Dunlieth without issuing an RFP.

Gibson said he stands by his position that the city should not offer the facility to Magnolia Medical Foundation.

“This is not a dictatorship. We will not impose something that the majority of the neighborhood opposes. … That is my position and it will not change,” Gibson said.

Officials decided to defer a motion to issue a new RFP for the property until the next board meeting on July 13. After the meeting, Gibson said issuing another RFP could result in a repeat of “the same situation that occurred just two or three years ago” when the city requested offers to buy the property and did not get a response.

“The city was looking for a buyer and (Magnolia Medical Foundation) never produced a proposal to buy or posted one dime toward the deposit or made any financial steps to that arrangement,” he said. “We’ve established a precedent in this city where we’re about to sell Margaret Martin to the adjacent property owner. Why would we not sell this? What is different? That is what I don’t understand.”

Gibson said his issue with Magnolia Medical’s proposal was not one of race, but the realization that more than 50 people in the neighborhood are against it. If the decision were to come to a tie vote again, Gibson said he would vote the same way he did in November.

“It is up to the board on what they choose to do. I will not be a mayor who dictates to a neighborhood what they should have and what they should not have,” he said. “If it comes to a tie, I will do exactly what I did in November. I am not going to support what I would see as a dictatorship.”