City given armory, seeks street change|[04/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Diverting traffic off Drummond and Lee streets between Vicksburg High and Memorial Stadium to an improved road immediately north of the stadium is among options city and school officials may consider.

Tuesday, Vicksburg was formally handed the deed to the former Army Reserve armory on Lee Street across Army-Navy Drive from the municipal pool. Mayor Laurence Leyens said the city is ready to hand over the deed to public schools if the schools agree to modifications in the area.

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Dr. James Price said later that he had not been made aware of the city being granted the deed and was unsure what the next step would be.

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“It’s completely a surprise to me,” Price said. “I’m happy it’s progressed that far, and I look forward to receiving the building.”

City officials met with Price about three weeks ago and presented three drawings — laid out as options — that would extend the high school’s hilltop campus. They would eliminate traffic that now travels from Drummond, which becomes Lee, to Army-Navy, Leyens said. Closing the street would provide a safer environment for students, he added.

“We gave Dr. Price three options on how to close Drummond Street and close off the complete campus if they rehab the school,” he said. “It will allow the kids to walk back and forth (to the stadium) without traffic and allow more parking for football games.”

Price said although he has studied the color-coded drawings, prepared by community planner Kelly McCaffrey, he has been waiting to see whether the two-story brick building at 1000 Lee would be deeded to the city before moving forward.

“I have not taken it to the board. I had no idea when Washington would finish the deal,” he said. “It bears a lot of thought. You can’t just go close down Lee Street. There’s a lot more to it.”

Leyens said that if Price and school trustees agree to the deal, the campus would begin just past Drummond and Polk streets. A road that leads to the parking area at Memorial Stadium would be improved and loop the stadium to connect with Lee Street near the pool. The existing road would essentially become parking for the school, Leyens said, adding that the city would also give up its half of a grassy area that was a former city pool site for even more parking.

Conversations between the city and Price have been ongoing since August, when Leyens told school officials the city would retain control of the building with plans to convert it into a garage as part of a cost-saving consolidation of city operations in the area. Price and other school officials responded that would break a verbal agreement had been made between the two parties to hand over the armory to the school district.

Leyens said Tuesday if Price and members of the school board accept the city’s offer to use the building and rehabilitate the school it will be a positive move.

“The aesthetics of the area are very important to the city’s economic growth, and it’s an anchor for that neighborhood,” Leyens said.

Price said he would still like to move the district’s 160-student JROTC program into the building, formerly the home of the 386th Transportation Company. Even though Price said he has never been inside the armory, he hopes to use it for “a lot of different things,” including maybe a gymnasium for basketball.

To rehabilitate VHS, one of two high schools in the 9,100-student school district would likely require a bond issue, Leyens said. It also would “fit in with Price’s effort to consolidate” the two high schools, he added. The superintendent, in early 2007, began exploring ways of merging VHS and Warren Central High School as a means to cut down on voluntary segregation. While a merger is something Price wants to eventually tackle, it has to be done “the right way,” he said.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way. If the community wants it, let them take part in it. We’re not going to divide the community over it,” he said. “I’m doing it the way it has to be done — we’ve opened the dialogue, and it might get to that point. But, we’re not anywhere near doing anything like that.”

Price said any major change in the system, such as creating a self-contained campus, will take time and major consideration.

“It’s the most generous offer, but it’s going to take a lot of studies,” he said. “We would like to have the building and we will consider any proposals.”