VCVB sells downtown spot, might stay in cottage a year|[04/02/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Separate actions Tuesday mean the board and staff of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau will spend the next year looking for office space — but not back in its former headquarters downtown.

The building at 1221 Washington St., which has been vacant since the January 2006 collapse of the nearby former Thomas Furniture building, has been sold to a Florida developer, said Bill Seratt, executive director of the tourism development agency.

Kim Steen, formerly of Vicksburg Realty, said a second offer made by Randy and Lisa Ashcraft, who plan to put an upper level condo and lower level retail in the building within the next six months, was accepted by the tourism board. Steen said the price was “right at what the building was appraised for,” and Seratt said the selling price would be in the board’s April 24 minutes.

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The VCVB, attempting to stabilize after years of changes in board membership and a fractious search for a director, is the main tourism funding arm in Vicksburg. It uses a 1 percent tax on food and bar tabs at local restaurants and lodging to fund a $1 million budget to advertise, promote the area and pay staff.

Operational challenges were compounded after the safety of its two-story downtown building at Washington and Clay was deemed uncertain after the nearby buildings, being cleaned for conversion into an antiques mall, imploded. The staff first moved across the street and then to a prototype Katrina cottage placed on a portion of the parking area of its visitor center across from the main entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park.

A year ago, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals gave quick approval to a one-year exception to allow the cottage with a one-year extension option. Seratt appeared before the city panel Tuesday, winning permission to exercise the extension until June 1, 2009.

In monthly meetings, board members have discussed moving back into the downtown building once legal matters between the city and the owners of the collapsed buildings were settled. A June 23-24 trial date was set by Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick last month to hear that dispute. The VCVB board took advice from then-board member Bobby Bailess, an attorney, and did not place staff back into the neighboring headquarters after the collapse, even though city officials told them they could enter “at their own risk.”

Randy Ashcraft said, before buying the building, he had an engineer fly in from Florida to check its stability.

“He felt like the (collapsed) buildings were no threat,” he said this morning. “It is stable enough and no danger at all.”

The building was remodeled into its existing appearance by First Federal Savings and Loan in the 1970s. That institution last became Unifirst before the building was sold to Trustmark, which has its main Vicksburg office directly across Clay. In 2001, Trustmark sold the building to the VCVB, which had been a tenant since 1995 and had outgrown office space at the visitor center.

Ashcraft, who said he is in discussions with national chains to possibly fill the lower level space, went after the building because of the potential he felt it offers.

“I saw it had a lot of character. I think it’s one of the most beautiful buildings downtown because of its character,” he said. “I thought it was a shame to let it sit there vacant.”

With no longer having the downtown office as an option, the new deadline to move from the cottage offices could put pressure on the agency to find a more permanent space, but Seratt seemed confident.

“The executive offices can be in any office, anywhere. We don’t need a storefront,” he told board members. “Our main travel counselor office will move into the transportation museum. That’s where we’re headed, but that’s all on the drawing board.”

Since the move from the downtown buildings, traveler counselors have been placed at the Vicksburg National Military Park, downtown at Lorelei Books and at the Mississippi Welcome Center, as well as at the visitor center. The transportation museum, to be privately operated in the city-owned former Levee Street Depot, is in development stages.

Seratt indicated he would like for offices to be downtown.

“If we have a preference, we’ll be downtown, but that depends on space available,” he said. “I think we need to be downtown.”

Vicksburg Main Street, which occupied a portion of the building at 1221 Washington St., also has been displaced since the collapse. The two-person staff has been at the City Hall Annex since the VCVB moved to the modular structure.

Ashcraft, who has investments all over the country, but primarily in Florida and Alabama, said he plans to begin renovations on the interior and exterior of the building in the next two to three weeks. Before purchasing the building, he and a business partner began seeking the possibility of offering helicopter tours in Vicksburg. Although the plan didn’t come to full fruition, he said he might bring the tours back.

In other business of the Zoning Board of Appeals, the board:

* Granted a special exception to allow Russell & Associates to have a portable structure remain on the same property where they operate a Sno-Biz at 3433 Halls Ferry Road with the understanding that they return in a year to update the board on the need for the additional building.

* Granted a variance from 10-feet to 6-feet on a home at 3 Riverwood Place, owned by Minor, Mac and Kimberly Ferris to add a closet and bathroom to the property.

* Denied a request made by Robert Johnson, operator of DBA Highway 27 Motors, to have a special exception to store disabled vehicles at 1801 Poplar St.

* Denied a request from Munn Enterprises Inc., to allow a second high-rise sign — removed by the previous owner — in front of Exxon on Halls Ferry Road. Dan Waring, owner of the building, told the board that the current sign made it difficult for vehicles driving east on Interstate 20 to see the gas station, operated by brothers Blake and Chris Nasif.