Committee chairperson Deborah Choate said the committee feels that they were misled by the Mayor and Council, who previously supported the project, and that the Council should be liable for expenses they incurred preparing to move the building.
“The council should be held liable for the permits and labor,” Choate said. Drawing mostly from monetary and labor donations, Choate said the committee was able to beat the odds and raised nearly $12,000 to go toward the move in a very short time of less than 90 days, the timeline set forth by the Bank of Abbeville, who owns the property the Mercantile store now sits on. The 90-day limit ended April 25.
“This happened the day before it was supposed to move,” Choate said. “There was no way to fight it.”
Mayor Bob Ferguson admitted the decision to halt the project was a “last minute” decision; however, time constraints and a lack of communication between the council and the committee were beyond his control.
“The committee knew we didn’t have approval and we still don’t have it,” Ferguson said; however Choate said she was not told by the Mayor that there were concerns about moving the building until Monday.
Choate said Corey Romero House Leveling service donated their time to move the building, and had already worked on preparing the building to be moved for three days before they were told to stop the project. After the project was halted Monday through an email, Choate said the committee will now have to find a way to give the donations back and explore legal options for recouping some of their expenses associated with the move.
“They never informed us there was a problem until the last minute,” Choate said. “The Mayor came to help lift the building Sunday. He never told me there was a problem when Corey went to get the permits last week.” Choate said it was the decision of Councilman Gary Villien, who originally seconded the motion to support the project in December, who then decided to halt the project. She said Villien admitted to her that two of his constituents were pressuring him to remove his support because it would cost too much in the long run.
In the email to Choate, Mayor Ferguson stated that is wasn’t because of permits, but opposition from the council that the project had to be halted.
“Debbie, Cheryl and Marc…If I get one more email like the one from Gary (Villien) below, this will in effect stop your Museum project…More and More complaints are coming in about a need for a Museum, as opposed to a want to salvage the building….I know this is late in the game, but where I thought I had council support, the cards are turning on me…I’m sorry this is coming down to the wire….Without Council support I cannot (continue with) the donation of the building…you need to start looking for alternative locations, please reschedule the mover from tomorrow….Bob.”
When questioned, the Mayor said the only reason the project was halted was because he did not receive formal approval to put the building on Maurice Park property.
“As Mayor, I had to stop the move because I did not have approval from the Department of the Interior to put a building on park property,” Mayor Ferguson commented. He said he was in favor of the project and even contributed a personal donation to the cause.
“I was forced to cancel the move,” he said. Ferguson said it requires formal approval from the State and the Department of the Interior to house a building on park property. He added the Village of Maurice does not have any additional land that could be used to house the building.
“The only alternative the Historical Preservation (Committee) has is to find someone who may have private property to temporarily house the building,” Ferguson added.
Maurice Councilman Troy Catalon said the primary issue with moving the building was approval from the state, but added monetary issues were a concern as well.
“I thought it was a good idea but still know we can’t fiscally support it,” Catalon said. Catalon said he did not know the moving was taking place until he saw it was lifted in preparation for moving.
Choate said this is not true. She said the city recently added a plot of dirt to house the building at Maurice Park long before the movers began preparing the building four days ago. She said when the committee first approached the council at a December meeting, a member of the audience questioned if it would allowable to put the building on park property and the Mayor said he already “took care of it” and received approval.
At the March 18 meeting, the council heard from Historical Preservation Committee member Richard Landry about the progress the committee had made toward receiving donations and the possibility of moving the building to Maurice Park. The published minutes for that meeting stated that Mayor Ferguson then read a letter he received from the Broussard family, who stated “there are many other pressing and important issues that should dealt with.”
The committee responded to the meeting on March 18, stating that if there was a foreseen problem with acquiring permission to move the building, they should have been notified then, before any work took place. Instead, they said they did not hear the project was canceled until Monday after Choate received an email from the Mayor stating such.
“It was totally unethical the way they handled the situation,” Choate said. “Even if permits were the problem, it’s still not fair to us. Their errors are not our problem.”
Choate said the committee is pursuing legal counsel to see if they can repay the house movers and lawyers for their work. “We feel we owe this man (Romero) something. He donated his time in good faith, thinking the building would be moved.”
She added that the actions of the council has also smeared the reputation of the committee. “You had a group of people asking for the community’s trust to help move the building; now you have money that you have to return. What does that do for the reputation of the committee?” committee member Annie Kananack asked.
“That doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop doing what we’re doing. It just tells us who we’re dealing with,” she added.
The committee said they are unsure if the city will go forward with the project, even if they do receive formal approval from the state. “How long will that be?” committee member Janice Gary retorted. Gary said unless Councilman Villen changes his mind, she thinks the building will get torn down.
Choate added the committee asked Vermilionville if they would be interested in the building and they told her it was too small. But, the committee is still hopeful someone from the community will step up and volunteer their land to house the future museum.
“We really saw this as the beginning steps of the community coming together for a positive future and preserving the identity for the Village of Maurice,” Kananack stated. “If you don’t have a vision of the future, you can’t appreciate your past.”
The Maurice Historical Preservation Committee is asking the public to call their councilman to support preservation of the historic Maurice Villien Mercantile Store and to prevent its impending demolition.
Councilman Villien did not return the Meridional’s calls and was not able to comment on this story; however, Councilman Catalon said he is still waiting to find out if the city will hold a special meeting to discuss this issue further.