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City backs off proposal to buy four properties in downtown

[1/22/04]At least four downtown properties that had been on the list to be bought by city government would be left in private hands under amendments to the urban renewal plan proposed Wednesday.

The amendments also included a change for the former Western Auto Building, 1517-19 Washington St. Vicksburg officials have gone back and forth between plans to renovate or demolish the long-vacant downtown building to create a pathway from a Walnut Street parking area.

Under the renewal plan approved in 2001, the city had plans to acquire the Rocking Horse Motors property, the former Nosser Grocery and two vacant lots. All will be taken off the list by those amendments. Jimmy Gouras, consultant, said events had caused plans to change.

The Rocking Horse Motors property, 20 N. Washington St., was sought through eminent domain, but a jury said the city would have to pay $400,000, twice the city’s appraised value. That has already resulted in a board vote to eliminate that tract from the redevelopment plan.

A vacant lot at China and Washington streets and one at Walnut and Grove streets were also on the list, but their perspective owners have said they have new plans for those properties.

The option of demolishing the former Western Auto Building will remain open if proposals to renovate that structure fall through.

“Demolition is a real possibility and I think we have a responsibility to reflect that in this plan,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

The amendments were presented at a public hearing Wednesday. Ronnie Bounds, the former city planner and one of the architects of the downtown makeover, said the city should sell the former Western Auto Building for redevelopment.

“Demolishing those structures will leave another lot that the city will have to take care of forever,” Bounds said. “There’s no need to put this amendment in right now.”

Bounds resigned from his post at City Hall a year ago, citing problems working with the new administration. He had been involved with the project from its inception and has been active in historical preservation.

The two buildings that were last a Western Auto store were built before 1900. Their fronts were reconstructed in the 1950s. City officials say that the current condition of the building is unsafe, but that they are willing to sell the property to be renovated.

“If we have anyone in the private sector interested in redeveloping that building, they can have it for $1 as far as I am concerned,” Leyens said.

The city paid $48,000 to buy the property from the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. Under state law, the city can keep the property for a public purpose or sell it to the private sector.

In order to sell the property for less than the purchase price, the redevelopment plans for the building would have to be worth more than the amount paid by the city. Leyens, who had been personally responsible for redeveloping at least three downtown properties before becoming mayor, said the estimated cost to fix the structural problems with the Western Auto building would be about $248,000.

“It’s not clear to me if it’s cheaper to revitalize this building or to demolish the building and rebuild it as it was even using the original materials,” Leyens said.

In 2001, the city borrowed $17.5 million for downtown revitalization and other city projects. To date, the city has spent $1.5 million acquiring downtown property and another $3.3 million repaving downtown Washington Street with bricks.

The proposed amendments also changed plans for the Discount Furniture Barn, 600 Jackson St. The owners there have also turned down the city’s offer to purchase the property and eminent domain proceedings have begun.

This week, city officials said they have asked their appraisers to take a second look at the property before going to court. No court date has been set.