Vicksburg Planning Commission Gives Unanimous Approval to Mill PUD

By Jef Rietsma

A vote labeled the most important within a 100-year period in Vicksburg will await its village council decision on Oct. 29.

Council members are expected to decide the fate of a proposed $60 million renovation of the former Simpson Paper Company, as the village’s planning commission unanimously endorsed the potential development at its Oct. 17 special meeting.

Village Manager Jim Mallery took any suspense out of the commission’s likely position, when he concluded a 15-minute statement at the onset of the meeting by declaring his and staff’s full support of the application for the planned-unit development (PUD)  agreement.

“What I termed on Oct. 3 is arguably, the most important decision this village has had in front of it 50 years in either direction. The potential positive impact to our village will be long-lasting and around for generations,” Mallery said. “It is our recommendation, based on the advice of our experts and our staff, that this commission support and recommend approval of the document that’s in front of you.”

Eighteen citizen comments and nearly two hours later, the seven-member commission paid heed to Mallery’s support and cleared the way for the matter to appear before the village council.

The tipping point that ultimately generated the commission’s and Mallery’s support could fairly be pegged to a series of critical concessions yielded by the project’s backer, Chris Moore, late the night before and only hours ahead of the planning commission’s meeting.

Tim Frisbie, a planning commission member and also a part of the seven-person village council, said the last-minute negotiating yielded a result that he could live with.

“There was language in (the original document), regarding sound that we had an issue with … that was a sticking point,” Frisbie said, following the meeting. “Negotiations late on Oct. 16 ended in disagreement, but we reconvened our conversations today. Chris called me personally and we discussed it, my issue with it impacting the (adjacent areas), and they ended up removing the language completely.”

Frisbie said everyone involved on both sides of the proposal clearly wanted to see some form of a plan garner approval. Still, he had comments written and ready to share at the meeting, where he was prepared to oppose the plan.

Frisbie said he discarded those notes at 2:15 p.m., not long after the various sticking points with Moore appeared to have been resolved.

Paper City’s proposal includes a conversion of the existing historical structure and grounds to a multi-use facility to include apartments, office space, event space, multiple food- and beverage-production facilities, a craft brewery and beer gardens.

It also plans to include outdoor venues for live performances where the majority of concerts will be one-night shows, not multiple days.  “We’ve asked for up to two weekends a year of multiple day festivals,” Koney said.

More than any other issue, the live-music component received the most attention – and criticism. Project Manager Jackie Koney said original plans called for amplified sound to cease at midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 p.m. any other days of the week.

Difficult as it was to accept, Koney said, Paper City agreed to a 10 p.m. conclusion Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. In the agreement, the Mill operation is allowed to go to midnight six days a year for the large (usually multiple-day) events/festivals.

“We definitely made concessions … in a big way, actually,” Koney said afterward. “We still feel this is a very good product and a business model that will work.”

With just a few exceptions, the 18 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting were adamantly in support of the redevelopment proposal. Many echoed the need for such a destination, while others noted the plan would help preserve a building and property that impacted thousands of local families over its 90-year life before closing in 2001.

Koney during the meeting told commission members she appreciated hearing the concerns as much as she did support from others.

“We have listened to, I think, about 500 of you over Q-and-A sessions and we’ll keep listening; that’s not going to change,” Koney said, also acknowledging the hundreds of hours Mallery and village staff have spent dedicated to the proposal. “We do agree with you, Jim, that we feel like we’ve come to a good compromise on a lot of things.”

Mallery has said if the project is approved, issues related to traffic volume, flow and parking would be addressed in greater detail in 2019.

“The developer needs an opportunity to continue to develop their strategy in determining what size events are best for that property,” Mallery said during an Oct. 3 planning commission work session. “Those discussions will take place similar to the discussions that have taken place on this development agreement. Staff will work with the developer to come to a fair and reasonable agreement that’s legally binding and that represent the core values of this village.”

Moore, meanwhile, is a Vicksburg native who now calls the Seattle area home. He stepped in after plans were presented to demolish the mill.

He told commission members earlier this month that he wanted to do something to honor the village by bringing back to life a community icon, albeit in a different capacity from its original purpose.

More than 70 people were in attendance at the Oct. 17 meeting. Village officials plan to conduct the Oct. 29 meeting at Vicksburg High School Performing Arts Center (PAC), which can accommodate what they expect will be another well-attended gathering.

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