Port bosses aim to find buyer for Ceres

Published 12:13 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Warren County Port Commission members voted Monday to seek someone to purchase and move the Ceres Plantation House, and joined county supervisors in planning a formal opposition to the structure’s pending protection as a state landmark.

In April, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees officially considered the old farmhouse at Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex for Mississippi Landmark status. The status limits alterations to structures and sites. A vote on the designation is expected July 23.

Reasons cited by the county for opposing past attempts at preserving the house have centered on eventually using the 12 acres on which the house and associated barns and other structures sit for industrial development. A letter from the county to the state agency is expected to focus on the multiple structural changes the house has undergone since the oldest part was built in the 1830s — a key sticking point in past attempts to persuade MDAH to preserve the house, which has roof damage and several broken windows.

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“We need to bring this to some type of resolution,” Port Commission executive director Wayne Mansfield said, adding the house’s many changes wouldn’t qualify it for placement onto the National Register of Historic Places and should, accordingly, discount its eligibility on the state level. “It’s been an issue that’s been hanging out there for a number of years now.”

Talks between the commission and the state agency have continued this month, with buy-and-move and on-site preservation emerging as possible actions, Mansfield said, adding the commission isn’t likely to get into the preservation business on its own, making the latter option unlikely.

Supervisors sat silent, but Board President Richard George, present at separate meetings of both boards Monday, didn’t mince words.

“It’s diametrically opposed to the very reason the county even owns that property.” George said. “After all these years, after numerous attempts by a number of individuals to maintain and improve the house, none proved to be profitable. In fact, every one has proven to be a dreadful loss…the only thing it can be designated as is a landmark for bankruptcy.”

Advising port commissioners, George referred to proposals like the one pitched in February to transform the house into a 19th century cultural village and bed-and-breakfast as “an admirable thought,” however expensive.

“But a lot of folks with admirable thoughts usually have empty pocketbooks,” said George, who drew a response from commissioner and former longtime chancery clerk Oren Bailess.

“We had that same conversation about 20 years ago,” Bailess said.

The house came with the county’s grant-funded purchase in 1986 of the 1,290 acres off the Flowers exit from Interstate 20. Heirs of the U.G. Flowers family had owned it. Two restaurants occupied the space during the mid-1990s before it became a plant nursery in 1998. It closed in 2007 amid a disagreement between the proprietor and commissioners over who should pay to repair the roof and address other structural issues. All three operated under a rental agreement that allowed the county to evict a tenant in the case of serious interest in the property by a commercial industry. The space has long been eyed by truck stop developers, with none coming to fruition.

Two proposals to demolish the house have been tabled by the commission. Costs to move the structure will depend on how far it’s hauled. An estimate outlined in the bed-and-breakfast proposal pegged a substantial move at $3 million.