Learning sums up Smith’s first year in office

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 31, 2001

A quick glance at the Hank Smith’s desk immediately communicates he’s busy.

Stacks of paper, file folders and bound reports are among the usual office clutter that fills most offices, but it’s a small cube on the front left corner of the desk that speaks volumes.

The small photo cube sits empty, months after members of his staff gave the item to Smith as a gift.

Asked about it, Smith reluctantly admit he’s been too busy to put the item to use.

&uot;I just need to stop long enough to get some pictures in it,&uot; the first-year Natchez mayor says.

Learning curve

Reflecting upon the recent one-year anniversary of his taking office, Smith says his first year can be summed up with one word – interesting.

&uot;It’s been a lot of learning,&uot; Smith explains. &uot;That can sum up the whole year.&uot;

And few residents would be surprised at the level of learning curve Smith has faced.

The Natchez native had no political experience before taking office after one of the closest Democratic primaries in recent history.

At the time he entered the mayoral race, Smith was retired from BellSouth and owned a local gift shop, Hullabaloo Gifts, with his wife, Jackie.

Smith ousted two term incumbent Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown by 253 votes in a primary runoff. Weeks later Smith easily defeated independent candidate Robert Costa in the general election.

&uot;The kind of learning curve I’ve had has not surprised me,&uot; he said. &uot;I felt like it was imperative on me to take a hard look at where we were. Coming in like I did, not knowing all the revenue sources and what the expenses are, you have to try and grasp that process.&uot;

Smith said having a mostly veteran board of alderman and other city officials helped smooth the transition.

&uot;On the day we were sworn-in, (Alderman &uot;Theodore&uot;) Bubber West said ‘this is the same board just with a new coach’ – that made me feel good,&uot; Smith said.

After he was sworn-in and once the congratulatory calls and letters stopped coming in the real work began.

&uot;You’re sitting here saying ‘where do I start?’&uot; he said. &uot;I basically knew what I wanted to do when I got here – economic development.&uot;

Economic woes

Smith ran his campaign based on the need to bring more jobs to the area, improving economic development and making the area’s economy more diversified.

Unfortunately for Smith, several events beyond his control marked his first year in office.

The week after Smith took office, International Paper Co. announces plans to sell its Natchez mill – one of the county’s largest employers. And though the plant has remained open, uncertainty about its future remains.

The weeks and months to come would prove equally as troubling economically.

Titan Tire scaled back operations in Natchez to a trickle and Ethyl Petroleum Additives closed its doors as well.

As the economy dipped, city tax revenues looked bleaker than expected.

The board of alderman was faced with a dilemma – raise taxes or find some other way to pay the bills.

On Sept. 5, Smith was forced to break a tie vote of the alderman and agree to raise ad valorem taxes by 4.199 mills.

The tax increase went to pay the city’s bond debt. And while in the long term, many felt it was really the only way to avoid cutting city services or personnel, the move angered some of Smith’s campaign supporters.

&uot;I think they may be a little disappointed that I voted on the tax increase,&uot; he said. &uot;(But) I still believe it was imperative that the city pay its bills and not jeopardize its credit. It was an absolute necessity. I still want those people to support me, and what this board does to make this a better place to live.&uot;

Success ahead?

Although he’s not exactly accomplished much in the way of bringing more jobs to Natchez, it still remains his focus.

And to Smith’s credit, revamping of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority did occur shortly after he took office.

A year ago the EDA was in a state of uncertainty. City and county leaders – who jointly fund the agency – agreed the agency needed to be downsized, refocused and have its open executive director position filled. But neither side could agree on how to accomplish that.

&uot;There had been some disagreements on the number of appointments – on how many the city would have and how many the county would have,&uot; he said. &uot;We sat down and through some cooperation and some give and take, we kind of hammered it out. And in the end everybody was happy with it.

&uot;It was time to do something and we’ve gotten that done,&uot; Smith said.

Changing tune?

During the election, Smith questioned whether the city could afford to invest in the $16 million St. Catherine Recreation Complex near Natchez High School.

But today, Smith marvels it as one of the best things going – so much so that he considers his best day in office one that was tied to the complex.

&uot;The day I learned Senate Bill 20-20 had been approved – it’s the bill that authorized the National Park Service to lease property for the beanfield project – that was a happy day,&uot; he said.

Smith recently pushed for and received approval from the board of aldermen to fund an archeological study that will clear up lingering questions about the site of the project.

Looking ahead

Despite some of the setbacks through his first year, Smith remains upbeat and positive about the future.

&uot;We’ve got some things that are going to happen,&uot; he said. &uot;The future does look good.&uot;

Smith points to future development at the area below Roth Hill. The area has &uot;huge potential,&uot; he said.

Other items of interest for Smith include:

Continuing work on the St. Catherine Recreation Complex which can provide economic benefits by bringing in tournaments as well as benefiting locals who will use the facilities.

Completion of a project to widen Government Fleet Road which leads to the Adams County Port.

Funding the federal courthouse project for downtown Natchez. Smith and others believe the project will be a min-industry bringing in many jobs and economic benefits.

Completion of the Natchez Convention Center and possible hotel development associated with it.

Smith said one of the biggest surprises is how most local projects ultimately need legislative action or approval and just how slow some things happen in government.