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City moves to sell Margaret Martin building to owners of Dunleith

NATCHEZ — City of Natchez officials are preparing to sell Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center to the owners of Dunleith Historic Inn.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson announced in a Tuesday regularly scheduled meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen that Natchez resident Mike Blattner and his business partners with the J Collection, a New Orleans-based hotel group that purchased Dunleith in November, would also purchase the historic building on Homochitto Street.

The city agreed to begin the process of selling the property by declaring the property surplus, meaning that it is not used for municipal purposes and does not house city functions. The measure was approved by a vote of 5-1 with Alderman Billie Joe Frazier voting “nay.”

Gibson said the facility’s lone tenant — the Natchez Festival of Music has vacated the building and is no longer leasing it.

“The festival of music should be commended for the hundreds of thousands in private dollars that they’ve raised to keep that facility going,” Gibson said.

Gibson said the J Collection agreed to a cash sale for the property and has proven financial means to complete the building according to historical guidelines.

“Not only do we have a buyer but we have a buyer with the financial means to restore it and make viable again to this city,” Gibson said.

The group owns some 15 hotels, including several in New Orleans and Nottoway Plantation Bed and Breakfast in White Castle, Louisiana.

Blattner said the group would invest upwards of $5 million to renovate and restore the property and use it as an extension of the services that will be offered at Dunleith, which would house a restaurant, event space and hotel rooms.

“The intent is to make it a multipurpose building, with conference rooms, spa and hotel rooms,” Blattner said.

Through a partnership with movie producers Tate Taylor and John Norris, Blattner said the group also plans open a theatrical school at Margaret Martin.

Officials said the building would revert back to city ownership if the company were not successful in their plans for the facility.

Purchase agreements were not finalized during Tuesday’s meeting.

In other matters during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Alderman, the board:

* Hosted a special presentation for Jennifer Ogden Combs for her contribution to Natchez as the Executive Director of Visit Natchez and the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission and presented her with the city’s unity flag bearing the Natchez city seal. Combs stepped down from her position effective Oct. 1 to pursue other interests.

* Hosted a special presentation for Roy F. King III and presented him with a key to the city for being a Good Samaritan to the City of Natchez in his donation of computers to the Natchez Senior Center, his volunteerism in the community and for helping a motorist in need who happened to be a silver alert victim.

* Heard a presentation from Tim Houghton of AMR about AMR’s emergency services and community participation.

* Heard a presentation from Sheri Brown regarding lighting improvements around the Proud to Take Stand Monument on Jefferson Street. Brown, who is a member of the monument commission, said the monument is in need of a light source so that it is visible during the evenings. Mayor Dan Gibson said the city is in the process of adding any names that were excluded when the monument was erected.

* Unanimously approved contracting evening security services for the Natchez bluff with James Walker. The board agreed to temporarily hire two security guards to work daily from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the evenings at a rate of $15 per hour for each officer, approximately $840 per week through Dec. 31 using funds from vacancies in the Natchez Police Department.

* Unanimously approved a remote workers incentive program that would gift $6,000 per year plus relocation expenses up to $2,500 per remote worker that relocates and purchases a property for no less than $150,000 within the city limits of Natchez. The incentive is capped at $180,000 and Natchez Inc. facilitates the distribution of the incentive funds, which are paid by the city on case-by-case basis, said Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ.

* Sabrena Bartley, Executive Director of Natchez Transit and Natchez Senior Center, requested ratification of the acceptance of two Mississippi Department of Transportation grants, one for the Natchez Transit System operations and another for persons with disabilities for the Natchez Senior Center. Bartley informed officials that MDOT changed audit language in the grant requirements, which now requires the department to receive an audit and the auditor’s report provided to MDOT or funds could be suspended.

* Approved a salary adjustment for Natchez Transit employees who are paid the grant from MDOT.

* Unanimously granted a license to James Barry of Natchez Manor to use a block of North Union Street for a concert Saturday with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Event organizers said a section of North Union Street adjacent to Natchez Manor would be blocked off with two entry points where temperature checks would be performed. The event begins at 2 p.m. Saturday and lasts until 9 p.m.

* Unanimously approved the allowance of four off-duty Natchez Police officers to work during the Natchez Balloon Festival with all expenses paid by the festival committee.

* Unanimously approved a motion made by Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith to donate $1,500 from the city promotion fund to the Natchez Balloon Festival.

* Unanimously approved a short-term tax anticipation loan for approximately $800,000 to bridge shortfalls in the city’s budget that will be paid off in March once sales taxes are received.

* Approved a resolution adopting a “residential renewal district” where property owners can receive tax abatements on renovations or improvements to their houses or properties. A non-binding resolution passed by a vote of 5-1 with Alderman Billie Frazier voting “nay.” Frazier said some neighborhoods appeared to have been left out where boundary of the renewal district was drawn in a map presented to the board. The map included an area north of Bishop Street to Smith Street and a section of John A. Quitman Boulevard to Liberty Road and St. Catherine Street to Devereux Drive.