City officials hope riverfront ideas grow into reality

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 14, 2002

NATCHEZ &045; So far, millions of dollars in state funds and about $20,000 from the City of Natchez itself have been spent on riverfront improvements.

Those include bluff stabilization as well as infrastructure improvements to Roth Hill Road, which descends almost to the water’s edge.

City and economic development officials are marketing 5.3 acres at the foot of Roth Hill, plus the 1.7-acre convention center parking lot site and the old Natchez Pecan Factory building, to prospective developers.

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The hope is that one day the entire riverfront &045; including a rebuilt Water Street running along the river between Silver Street and Roth Hill Road &045; will be taken up with park space and housing, and with businesses that would bring jobs and tax revenue into the city.

The idea is something city officials have been developing for several years, said those close to the project.

&uot;Ten years ago, that property was nothing but trees, and 10 years from now you’ll see some (development) down there,&uot; said City Engineer David Gardner. &uot;Once you plant a seed, it’s going to grow.&uot;

Starting in 1998 and ending in 2001, the U.S. Corps of Engineers supervised a more than $28 million bluff stabilization project that included the area from Clifton Avenue to Silver Street.

That amount included a $3.2 million match and $1.5 million in additional grants from the State of Mississippi, with the rest coming from federal funds.

And $838,500 in funds left over from bluff stabilization work was used to pave Roth Hill Road, build sidewalks and install utility lines, streetlights and guard rails.

So far, the city has spent an estimated $20,000 on the riverfront, including some erosion control work.

That amount also includes studies to determine developments suitable for the riverfront and parking and street changes that would be needed to accommodate that growth.

The city has also developed a 31-page color booklet to send to developers inquiring about the sites &045; the foot of Roth Hill, the parking lot site and the Pecan Factory site.

The packet includes maps, some brief descriptions of the property and photos of the riverfront and the individual sites themselves.

A thick request for proposals, also sent to prospects, details zoning restrictions on the site &045; as well as other restrictions, such as the need for approval to locate in the 100-year flood plan.

&uot;Anything built there (at the foot of Roth Hill) would need to be built up&uot; six feet or more above ground, Gardner said. However, flooding is unlikely &uot;since the river has only been above 60 feet four times&uot; since the 1920s, he said.

Under Natchez’s zoning ordinances, only retail, restaurants, small offices, bars, service businesses, dockside gaming, entertainment, dwelling units, guest houses, marinas and docks and parks are allowed by right in the waterfront development district.

Industrial and wholesale uses aren’t allowed, and hotels would be required to apply for a special use permit.

City officials said this week they are still hoping to lease all three sites to a single entity that could develop the entire complex. If that does not materialize, the site could be leased in parcels to different developers.

A convention-grade hotel is a must, said Smith, in order to attract larger gatherings to the Natchez Convention Center.

The city is courting the federal government for a possible $3 million or more to develop park space at the foot of Roth Hill.

&uot;I envision a riverwalk, something similar to the sidewalk that is on top of the bluff now,&uot; Smith said. Time-share condos could even be one possible use of the land, Gardner said.

And if a single developer does not want to develop all three sites, the city will be forced to lease the property piecemeal.

Meanwhile, those in the business of real estate watch with interest.

&uot;I don’t think they’ll be able to get a single developer to take all of that property,&uot; said A. Vidal Davis, real estate agent specializing in land.

&uot;A casino would be the only one with the resources to pull it off. And the city would have to reduce their gaming taxes enough to make it worth (the casino company’s) while to move here.&uot;

Davis, a former alderman himself, would not estimate how much the city could get in lease payments for the property. However, he said he believes that if gaming taxes are reduced enough to entice another casino, &uot;it would be a wash.&uot;

&uot;It would benefit the city mainly through ad valorem taxes,&uot; Davis said. The economic impact of such developments would depend on what eventually locates at the sites, city officials said.

Condos, especially for older people who no longer want the hassle of maintaining a larger home, would be the highest and best use of the pecan factory site in Davis’ opinion. &uot;You don’t have any other place to build them where you’d have that view of the river,&uot; he said.

But a gaming company could develop the sites above and below Roth Hill, he said. &uot;They’d have the casino, the hotel and the convention center all right there,&uot; Davis said. &uot;It would be perfect for them.&uot;

The city does not intend to conduct a feasibility study on locating developments along the riverfront.

&uot;That’s the job of the developers when they take a look at this property,&uot; Smith said.

The City of Natchez isn’t alone in that philosophy.

The Town of Vidalia, which has located a hotel and restaurant at its own riverfront development in recent months, did not conduct a feasibility study, either, said Town Manager Kenneth Davis.

What makes the Natchez riverfront a good location for new developments? Location, location, location, said city officials.

&uot;That site has such a magnificent view, with an opportunity for people to get right to the edge of the water,&uot; Smith said.

In addition, he said, financial incentives are available through Advantage Mississippi and other programs through the Mississippi Development Authority,

Smith said.

&uot;Natchez is a historic destination, and these properties we’re offering show the river off more than any other,&uot; Gardner said. &uot;It’s a diamond in the rough.&uot;

In order to polish that diamond, however, more work might need to be done along the riverfront. For example, the Weatherford-McDade plans show Water Street, now partially under water, being rebuilt and extending from Silver Street to Roth Hill Road.

In order to do that, the city would need to get the agreement of the Isle of Capri, which leases about six acres of land north of its current site from several different landowners and owns the parcel just south of Roth Hill.

The city would also need to get the agreement of the other property owners themselves. &uot;Ideally, there would be development all along the river,&uot; Brown said.

The city would also need to find money to make such improvements. Potential funding sources include Community Development Block Grants through the Mississippi Development Authority, Gardner said.