Levee Street Depot|Tourism plan to move ahead without Chamber

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 20, 2009

With the first deadline on Monday, the City of Vicksburg is moving forward to preserve the 102-year-old Levee Street Depot by creating office spaces for two tourism-oriented agencies above a ground-floor transportation museum.

The plan alters the original proposal, which included moving operations of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce from Mission 66 to the depot.

The decision to cut the Chamber out of the deal was made purely out of financial constraints, Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield said.

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The initial plan, introduced during the Laurence Leyens administration, called for the city to purchase the Chamber’s building at 2020 Mission 66 for $300,000 and the Chamber, in turn, to contribute $150,000 toward the matching funds required of a $1.65 million grant awarded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation in 2007.

 “We have all had to compromise, and there are still some details to be worked out, but the main thing is we’re moving forward,” Winfield said. “We don’t have the need for the space, nor do we have the funds.”

The city anticipates contributing up to $105,000 toward the $412,350 required in matching funds and achitects’ fees. 

“We’re disappointed because we think it’s a fantastic project and it would have been great if we could have been a part of it,” said Christy Kilroy, Chamber executive director. “But we understand this was a business decision and we’re thrilled it’s moving forward and the building will be preserved.”

The transportation museum has been in the works for about five years, but its organizers have been unable to raise the matching funds. With the grant offer set to expire this month, Leyens concocted a plan in his final months of office to raise the matching funds via the three agencies, city contributions and in-kind matches.

Along with the Chamber, the Vicksburg Main Street Program and Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau signed on to move to the depot. Leyens said the move would save each agency money and provide them a more prominent and permanent home.

However, with the change of administrations in June — when Winfield bested Leyens with nearly two-thirds of the vote —  the project was left on the line and many speculated Leyens’ defeat also might have sounded the project’s death-knell. During a 1 1/2-hour meeting in August with the new mayor and representatives from the transportation museum, Chamber, VCVB and Main Street program, Winfield made it clear it would be difficult to find the funds necessary to keep the project alive.

“It was kind of doubtful for a while there, but I think it was just a matter of the new administration getting familiar with where we were on this,” said Harry Sharp, Main Street program chairman. “Once the mayor got up to speed, he was on board. This deal just made so much sense that once everybody understood what we had the chance to do, it was a no-brainer.”

Some details of the original agreement drafted by the Leyens administration will have to be reconsidered now that the Chamber is not involved, said Winfield. However, the tentative plans still call for the VCVB and Main Street to enter into a 20-year lease with the city and pay about $500 a month for rent and utilities. The city bought the depot in 2002 for about $295,000 as part of Leyens’ urban renewal plan for City Front.

The architectural renderings now call for office spaces to be on the second floor of the depot, as opposed to the second and third floors when the Chamber was still in the equation. The second floor also will house a library and research area managed by the museum, and the third floor will be used for storage.

“We’re disappointed that the Chamber will not be there, but we were basing our decision on location and preservation, and we are very pleased to see it moving along with great speed,” said Bill Seratt, VCVB executive director, noting a visitors’ information kiosk staffed by the VCVB will be on the ground floor.

The VCVB will kick in $150,000 toward the grant match, while the depot building has been valued as an $240,000 in-kind match. Main Street, which is primarily funded by the city and a special tax assessed on properties within the downtown district, is not being asked to contribute any funds. The renovation costs for the museum and the office spaces will be paid for through the grant.

City Attorney Lee Davis Thames Jr. said the city has negotiated an extension on the grant to allow the renovation designs to be submitted in pieces to MDOT over the next two months. Fifty percent of the drawings must be submitted by Monday, he said, while plans must be 90 percent complete by Oct. 30 and finished by Nov. 15. Natchez architect Johnny Waycaster was hired by the city on June 30 to complete the renderings, and he has told city officials he will be able to meet the new deadlines.

The renovation work will include making the depot ADA compliant by installing ramps and an elevator, and the city will put the project out to bid following the approval of the final renderings, said Thames. The mayor estimated the renovation will take about nine months, which means the VCVB and Main Street might move in within a year.

Lamar Roberts, executive director of the transportation museum and owner/operator of the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum, said the museum will take a little longer to take shape. 

“We hope to be open within a year and a half,” said Roberts, who also is a member of the VCVB board of directors. “We’re going to be unique in several ways, primarily in that we’re going to be trying to cover the history of all forms of transportation.”

About 1,500 books, a dozen model trains with 150 model rail cars and other exhibits have been donated to the museum, said Roberts. Some of the model steamships currently housed in his battlefield museum on North Frontage Road will be moved to the new museum, he said, and aviation displays are being designed. The Battlefield Museum will remain open as is until the transportation museum opens, at which point Roberts said the Battlefield museum primarily will feature military displays. He estimates the transportation museum will draw about 50,000 visitors annually.

Nancy Bell, a member of the Main Street board since its inception 26 years ago and executive director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, said the deal is more than welcomed by those who have pushed for decades for the preservation of the depot.

“We’ve had a number of railroad stations in Vicksburg and this is the only one left except for a small freight depot farther down Levee Street. It’s a beautiful building — certainly one of the most prominent landmarks at City Front — and we’re very excited to see it preserved in a manner befitting its history,” said Bell.

While the Chamber was onboard with the move into the depot, it needed it the least. The Chamber has roughly 70 years left on its current lease — the city owns the land and the Chamber owns the building — while the VCVB and Main Street have been displaced since the January 2006 collapse of a Clay Street building that potentially compromised the structural integrity of their shared headquarters at 1221 Washington St.

Main Street offices have since been located in the City Hall Annex on Walnut Street, while the VCVB has been conducting all of its official business in a manufactured building behind its visitor center at 3300 Clay St., across from the entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park.

“Since I’ve been chairman of the board, Main Street has moved at least four times, which is a pain in the neck and not always productive,” said Sharp, who has chaired the board for 12 years. “While it’s not on Washington Street, the depot will give us a permanent presence right there in the heart of downtown, which will allow us to serve the Main Street members and Vicksburg citizens better.”

Although the Chamber will not be at the depot, Kilroy said the experience of working together on the project has nonetheless brought the agencies together in less tangible ways.

“We’re proud of the relationship we’ve built with the VCVB and Main Street, and we’ll continue to support them and work with them in any way we can,” she said.

Sharp agreed and added, “Our groups have had better communication, camaraderie and cooperation than I can ever recall.”


The Levee Street Depot

• Paid for by Illinois Central and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads, the 14,000-square-foot, three-story depot on Levee Street cost $69,751 to build in 1907, on riverfront property ceded by the City of Vicksburg. With an estimated 20,000 residents, Vicksburg was at that time Mississippi’s largest city.

• The depot was designed by turn of the century architect Daniel Burnham, who was also busy laying out a city plan for Chicago in 1906 and had also designed prominent buildings in New York City, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. It is the only example of his work in Vicksburg. 

• In 1931, much rail business moved to the Holly Street Depot, formerly located just east of the Cherry Street viaduct and since torn down.

• In 1974, Illinois Central railroad superintendents moved the last of their offices from the depot to Washington Street. Other departments had moved years before.

• An extensive renovation of the depot was completed in the summer of 1977, followed by the opening of The Depot Restaurant and Club Car Lounge on the ground floor and Vogue Beauty Shop on the second floor.

• From 1982 to 2003, Kidney Care dialysis center occupied the ground floor of the depot, while the third floor was renovated for residential use in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

• The City of Vicksburg purchased the depot in 2002 from The Depot Partnership of Jackson, and a year later received a $150,000 grant from Mississippi Department of Archives and History for preservation work.


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com