What will be painted on bluff canvas?
A vacant lot to a developer is like a blank canvas to an artist — full of potential.
After the old Natchez Pecan Factory was torn down on Broadway Street, the property along the bluff between Madison Street and High Street has been a blank canvas for the city.
Every artist has a unique vision for a painting even before the first brush stroke is made. The same is true for those who have had a vision for the old Pecan Factory site.
Former Natchez Mayor Phillip West tore down the building in 2007 to make way for private condominiums that failed to gain the Mississippi Department of Archives and History approval required to build on the Mississippi landmark site. With hindsight afforded by the 2008 collapse of the national housing market this vision for the bluff looks like a nightmare averted.
Natchez Mayor Butch Brown is in the process of redeveloping the land into a farmer’s market and demonstration gardens. The city-owned train depot will also be renovated. With funds from various grants, Brown sees the project as one of the shining jewels in his Natchez Tricentennial crown.
But do demonstration gardens really make sense on the bluff? As intriguing as the idea may be, I am not completely convinced.
Unlike the visions of people strolling through gardens filled with flowers and fountains, these gardens are likely to be something altogether different.
Unlike display gardens, which are built for show, these gardens will be created for educational purposes. They will more than likely be fenced-in with limited access to the public and a limited season of good looks. The gardens may be at their best during the spring months when the landscape is filled flowers and spring green foliage, but could look less than perfect in the summer heat and winter cold.
If condominiums and demonstration gardens are not the answer, then what is?
The answer may have been staring us in the face all along.
Since the pecan factory was torn down and cleaned, the area has been the site of several events that have attracted large crowds of people. In February, Broadway Street was packed with adults and children straining to get a glimpse and a photograph of the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales. The team of horses even made a commercial-worthy run along the grassy lot.
In April, more people crowded the green space between Madison and High streets to eat good food, enjoy carnival rides and listen to some good country music during Riverstock 2014.
People returned to the area in May for the Natchez Arts Festival, which, though small, staked a claim in the privately-owned parking lot next to the Broadway depot. The same parking lot was used for a skating rink during the past two Christmas seasons.
As these events might suggest, the best use of the old Pecan Factory site might just be what it already is — an open space that is flexible enough to allow for festivals, concerts and other events.
Studies show that such parks not only increase quality of life in a city, but also increase property values for surrounding properties — something that could help that area of town.
With a hotel, existing bar, coffee shop and future craft beer and live music venue within walking distance, the site could compliment any plans for a budding nightlife and entertainment district.
Before the city hands over another piece of the Natchez bluff, maybe it should consider that the canvas is better empty for this masterpiece.
Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.