Centraplex issue might be coming to a decision point

Published 4:19 pm Thursday, April 28, 2011

The controversy over the Mississippi Mall Centraplex — which was turned over in 2005 by the Foundation for Civic Development to the City of Picayune to be used as a civic center — might be a topic of discussion at the council meeting on Tuesday.

A decision on what to do with the complex has been in limbo for almost two years, and some citizens and civic organization leaders want something done about it.

Some members of Picayune civic groups are planning on addressing the council over the issue, if they can get on the agenda, or are allowed to speak. There is a short segment of the council meeting used to receive public comment.

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The decision to attempt to address the council came following a Monday night meeting by about 20-to-30 proponents who want a decision made on the civic center.

Foundation officials, which originally acquired and founded the civic center, indicated this week that if the Picayune City Council doesn’t return to the Foundation the Centraplex and over $1 million in insurance money, the Foundation probably will end up taking the City of Picayune to federal court over the matter.

The Foundation says it can have the facility back in operation within six months if the city returns the property, says Martha Sheppard, Foundation president.

The Foundation wants the property back. A proposal by the City Council to sell it and with the funds and insurance proceeds construct a multi-purpose building for civic events near the police department has been floated by some city officials, but no decision made; and at least one council member, Mayor Ed Pinero, Jr., said he favors returning the facility to the Foundation.

These are some of the proposals and positions that are being aired out and discussed. But the long, drawn-out process has perturbed some of the organization leaders who used the Centraplex in which to meet or hold exhibitions and events.

The $1 million was proceeds from insurance policies, which paid out after the disastrous June 13, 2009, fire that damaged a portion of the facility.

The Foundation maintains that the city, from the start, broke its contract with the Foundation by not using the property in the way the contract originally called for.

The Foundation has additionally charged the city has let the facility lie dormant for almost two years, saying the city claimed it was waiting for insurance claims to be settled before re-opening the facility, and by the delay has forced a number of civic groups that were using the facility to improvise constantly and lose money.

The Foundation says the Shriners have lost thousands of dollars in charitable donations because it is not able to entertain the public at its regularly scheduled bingo games, from which sizable donations to charities are made.

The Shriners about six months ago complained at a city council meeting that it needed access to its room in the facility. The Shriners actually own the room; it was given to them by the Foundation.

However, the city has not repaired the hallway to the room, says Monte McAndrews, who represents the Shriners, and therefore the public has no access to its facilities.

Dennis Lee, who owns D&M Lighting on the south end, has no water but is still paying property taxes on his portion of the building which he owns. He says he has no electricity by choice. He said his electricity bill was running $800 a month so he had it cut off.

He said the city offered to buy him out recently and then came back two days later and said they had changed their minds, that they were going to give the facility back to the Foundation. He did not identify the official with whom he talked.

Foundation officials said that they, within six months of acquiring the facility, can have the old Centraplex up and running and serving civic organizations.

The property has remained mostly undisturbed since the fire and the city has claimed it could not re-open the facility until all insurance claims were settled.

Additionally, there have been charges that the facility has not been secured properly and, therefore, was pillaged, especially for the copper wire, but Pinero said the facility was patrolled by police and that those taking the copper wire were caught and arrested in the act.

“The city has failed to clear the mess left from the fire, and it has used its failure to timely conclude its claims or investigations of that fire as an excuse not to clear the mess or to allow access,” said a statement drawn up by attorney Steve Sheppard, who drew up the original agreement between the Foundation and the city in 2005.

Sheppard is the son of Martha and Bill Sheppard, who were helped to establish the Foundation and acquire the complex from California developers. She said Steve Sheppard is the Foundation’s attorney of record.

Sheppard’s statement was released following the Monday meeting and was circulated widely.

“The Foundation has attempted to negotiate with the city. The city has hired a very expensive lawyer from a big law firm in Jackson, who has not talked to the Foundation in months,” says Sheppard’s statement.

He further wrote that if the city does not return the center with its assets, the Foundation will “consider its options in court.”

Sheppard’s statement continues, “Under its contract, its promises and its trust, the City of Picayune must account for every penny made from this property, and that money may be used for only one purpose — to support a single civic center. And, the money, property and value the City lost through negligent management must be made good for that purpose as well.”

He added, “The Foundation is now prepared to enforce the contract and to enforce the Trust. The city has never created or provided a plan to manage a civic center. Some people in the city think they can do anything they want with the property the Foundation gave them, and they seem to believe the city can violate its trust, break its promises and break its contract, and nothing will happen.”

Martha Sheppard, in a Wednesday interview with the Item, called the situation a “horrendous mess.”

City Councilman Wayne Gouguet, asked to comment on Wednesday, said, “It is a mess. There are so many stake holders involved.”

Pinero has previously said that he favors returning the facility to the Foundation. Other councilmen have not openly stated where they stand on the issue.

The old Mississippi Mall, now known as the Centraplex, is located in the southwest corner of South Haugh Avenue and Memorial Boulevard. It was one of the earliest shopping center developments undertaken here.