‘Cottage’ placed on lot at welcome center|[04/11/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A modular home was placed in the parking area of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Welcome Center at Old Highway 27 and Clay Street on Tuesday to function as temporary staff offices.

It’s at least the third time tourism operations have moved since the Jan. 25, 2006, Thomas Furniture Building collapse and returns staff to the site where they were until the former First Federal Savings & Loan building downtown was purchased.

A move out of downtown is expected April 29, a month after board members notified Duff Green owner Harry Sharp they would no longer rent space in his building at 1300 Washington St.

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Board chairman Nelda Sampey said Cappaert Manufactured Housing offered the modular structure for free for up to two years. Patti Cappaert, wife of Cappaert President Mike Cappaert, is a member of the board.

&#8220The board felt like any money we have needs to be directed toward advertising (as opposed to rent),” Sampey said.

Modular buildings are not allowed under most City of Vicksburg zones, including the C-4 general commercial classification of the welcome center sight. City officials quickly granted a one-year special exception renewable for another year.

&#8220Obviously, we’re hoping to be back on Washington Street before then,” Sampey said.

The physical shuffling is an aspect of broader changes at VCVB under way for two years. Most of the 11 board members are new or recently reappointed. Also, a one-year plan to contract-out management is coming to an end with the hiring of a new executive director, William &#8220Bill” Seratt of Greenville, who reports May 1.

Peach-colored and resembling the welcome center building it sits behind, the modular house meets Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements as a &#8220Katrina Cottage” and was built as a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, Sampey said. It is expected to house all VCVB operations and equipment, according to the city inspections department. Sampey said the building will be equipped with three offices, a board room and two bathrooms, which will tie in to utility lines already in use at the site.

The VCVB was created in 1972 as an independent tourism development agency to be funded with a 1 percent local tax on tourism-related sales. The agency initially built its welcome center, which had staff offices, across from the main entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Years later, after Trustmark obtained the former savings and loan headquarters at Clay and Washington, the agency bought that two-story structure to have a downtown presence and more room for staff.

When adjacent buildings in the block collapsed, VCVB offices moved to the City Hall Annex pending inspection and any needed repairs. A timetable for that process was not known.

Later, they moved to Sharp’s building across from their headquarters. After five months of renting the building to the tourism agency for 15 percent of the market value, Sharp said he and the board were to renegotiate and decide on a rent closer to market value. At the same time, Sharp became the top pick by District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders to sit on the tourism board. An advisory opinion from the state Ethics Commission, however, affirmed in January it would be unethical for Sharp to receive any payment from VCVB funds and serve on the VCVB board as a nominee of Warren County supervisors. Sharp told the board in February that staff could stay rent-free for no more than 120 days. After not hearing back from board members, Sharp withdrew his name from consideration in March, leading to supervisors to approve restaurant owner David Day to serve as the appointee from District 4.

Sharp then renewed a lease offer, which the agency has apparently rejected.

One vacancy remains on the VCVB board, that being the position appointed from District 2 Supervisor William Banks.

House Bill 1640, expected to be signed by Gov. Haley Barbour April 23, requires that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and county supervisors approve each respective appointment to the board with a majority vote. That resolves confusing language in the existing statute, indicating supervisors made appointments with no board vote required.

The bill also empowers the VCVB to employ a corporation or agency or an individual as its management entity. That resolves the question of whether Compass Facility Management could legally be hired.

Seratt, 11-year director of the Greenville-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been meeting informally with some local tourism operators. An official welcome is in the planning stages.