Candidates: City needs jobs, industry

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 15, 2000

Jobs. It’s one of the first issues Natchez candidates talk about as they campaign, and it’s one of the first things voters tell them they want.

Natchez’s unemployment rate has hovered between 6 and 8 percent over the past year — the latest figures, for February, put it at 7.9 percent.

But some people argue that some of the jobs Natchez has don’t pay enough. The latest figures available, from 1997, put per capita income in Adams County at just more than $18,000, with an average household income of $48,468. In 1990, 30 percent of the county’s residents lived below poverty.

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This year’s mayoral candidates have plenty ideas about economic development — from attracting high-tech industries to promoting what’s already here.

&uot;Economic development has always been on the front-burner of this office,&uot; said incumbent Mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown. &uot;I ran aggressively to seek better industries for Natchez.&uot;

Brown, who also owns Riverside Central Services, said the city was active in helping put Fruit of the Loom in Vidalia, La., when the company decided not to locate in Natchez – which he said benefits Natchez as well.

Brown said the city continues to pursue opportunities for both CASA&160;Aircraft Co. of Spain and Litton Industries to locate in Natchez. He has lobbied the state’s Congressional leadership for its help in getting the companies to located in Natchez — such as federal contracts for CASA cargo planes.

Independent candidate Robert F. Costa said he believes Natchez needs to keep what it has and look for more opportunities.

&uot;If we’re going to be tourism then let’s go after tourism,&uot; Costa said, adding that Natchez needs a Web site to give potential tourists comprehensive information about the city. He said some of the money spent on print advertising could be put toward developing a Web site.

Costa believes Natchez needs to go after every industry it can to attract jobs to Natchez.

Democrat John &uot;Pulleybone&uot; Pullen has a plan to form a committee of local residents — a real estate agent, a lawyer, an educator, a minister, a wholesale retail merchant, an industrial administrator and the mayor – who would actively recruit companies.

&uot;The purpose will be to fly to industrial sites interested in coming to the state of Mississippi,&uot; Pullen said. &uot;The first thing I’ll do in the morning is call the state of Mississippi and find out if there’s any industries that want to come to Mississippi. I’ll set up a meeting with the company and the committee.&uot;

Pullen said he also wants to produce a professional video about Natchez and its educational, industrial and transportation opportunities to show to prospective industries.

Democrat F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith doesn’t think Natchez has to go very far to find resources for economic development. He said Natchez needs to focus on what the resources it already has, such as timber. And using what the city has won’t cost much capital outlay, he said. &uot;We can do a lot more than we’ve already done,&uot;&160;he said. &uot;Lumber mills do a great job, but we don’t have a user for that resource,&uot; he said, adding that furniture manufacturing jobs might be an option.

Smith also said the area can’t overlook its agricultural opportunities. &uot;We’ve got food and fiber produced around here in abundance,&uot; he said. &uot;There’s aquaculture — catfish and crawfish farms. They could use a feed company. We’ve got to utilize what we’ve already got.&uot;

Independent Phillip West — who is considering dropping out of the race — said Natchez needs to first change its attitude if it wants to attract industry.

&uot;That’s been a major part of our problem,&uot; West said, &uot;the community’s overall attitude and willingness to show the desire necessary to help attract the jobs we need.

&uot;I don’t think we can attract those kinds of industries until we have a change in priorities. We have to have growth or we will be withering on the vine and then eventually die.&uot;

West wants to see jobs that &uot;will provide a living wage … on the scale of an International Paper or slightly more or less. We have enough minimum wage jobs.&uot;

Candidates acknowledged the city has some disadvantages when it tries to recruit industry — such as a lack of four-lane highways.

&uot;We’re not proud of it, but when we go into the competitive arena to attract jobs it’s like we’re standing with one hand tied behind our back,&uot; Brown said, adding the city is also a deadend for a railroad line.

But Brown said the city has also been able to secure the nation’s first grant for an intermodal highway grant $1.5 million to help rebuilt the port access road Government Fleet Road.

Candidates said that even if four-lane highways are still a few years away, Natchez has other forms of transportation.

&uot;We can’t wait until we get the four-lanes,&uot; Pullen said. &uot;We’ve got to work now. The river and the rail will offset the four-lanes. The four-lanes will come.&uot;

&uot;We’ve got the easiest transportation in the world flowing right by us,&uot; Smith said. &uot;The bridge is the only one for roughly 150 miles of river. That makes it an asset there.&uot;

And for Smith, the notion that a lack of four-lane highways has hurt Natchez is &uot;a cop-out.&uot; &uot;Tupelo is stuck in the northeast corner of the state, with no interstates,&uot; he said, citing a city which has developed a strong furniture-making industry. &uot;And it doesn’t have the river.&uot;

West agreed that highways aren’t the only problem. He said the lack of four-lane highways is probably about 30 percent of the problem.

&uot;Highways alone won’t get us jobs,&uot; he said. &uot;And highways alone won’t keep us from getting jobs.&uot;