Local officials talk about progress in the community’s recipe for economic success

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

Economic development experts are quick to point out there is no magic answer to attracting industry.

But they do believe in a few basic ingredients to help make a community attractive to businesses: among them, industrial parks; private money to help build those parks and fund other ventures; quality of life aspects such as good schools and clean streets; and unified leadership to tie it all together.

So where does Natchez stand in assembling such a recipe?

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Unified leadership

James West, vice chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority, admits there is &uot;a lot of work to be done.&uot;

But he said the community has made progress just in the past couple of years, since Natchez and Adams County revamped the EDA board, cutting it from 15 to five people and hired an executive director after nearly three years without one.

&uot;One thing you have to realize is when the five-man board took over, the state didn’t even seriously consider Natchez (for projects),&uot; West said. &uot;Now they’re actually sending us prospects.&uot;

West believes Natchez hasn’t been industry friendly in the past &045; and that’s because so many different entities were working toward industrial development.

&uot;People would come to town and talk to too many different people,&uot; he said. &uot;Our board is basically committed to a team effort. We’re committed to making things happen.&uot;

West said he knows the community needs to be more unified.

&uot;I would be telling you a story if I told you we were all on the same page,&uot; he said.

But he believes that with more communication everyone will be working together.

&uot;To move forward, we need to all sit at the table,&uot; he said. &uot;We need to bring (the garden clubs) to the table. Let’s bring all of the players to the table and say where we want to go.&uot;

Communities like Hattiesburg and Starkville have consolidated their economic development efforts under one umbrella organization.

Former mayor Tony Byrne believes that unity can exist not only on the private level but also on the public level. Byrne, who served as Natchez mayor from 1968 to 1988, has seen cycles of some of the same mistakes made by political and business leaders.

Consolidating boards, both business and governmental, is something he has touted for decades.

&uot;I’ve seen it so many times, trying to put everyone under one board,&uot; he said. &uot;It sounded good, but it didn’t take long for the turf battles to begin.&uot;

He appreciates the efforts under way now to bring boards together for discussions. He hopes something positive will come from it. The fact remains, however, that too many people are doing the same job.

Consolidating city and county governments would go a long way toward easing some of the problems Natchez faces today, he said. &uot;People can’t continue to afford all the taxes &045; city, county, state, federal. Consolidation would save money.&uot;

Any serious discussion of consolidation previously has ended in disarray because of egos that rise above statesmanship, Byrne said.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Lynwood Easterling said economic development efforts need to be made area-wide, including surrounding counties and Concordia Parish in discussions.

By including everyone, the area might be able to land a larger industry that could benefit the whole region, he said.

&uot;We don’t need to think just Natchez-Adams County any more,&uot; Easterling said.

Incentive fund

Thinking outside the county could also help raise funds from private entities.

Recently, a group of local officials and business people met to discuss the possibility of forming a private fund to support economic development efforts.

Natchez Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith had already discussed with local business owners the possibility of businesses forming an incentive fund to attract new industries.

Then, on June 10, business and government leaders met at City Hall to talk about the details.

In the end, volunteers agreed to compile information on forming a small business incentive company that could raise money which, along with matching funds from the Small Business Administration, could be used to provide loans to industries.

&uot;They’ll bring that back as soon as they can, and once that’s done we’ll convene another meeting,&uot; Smith said.

Volunteers didn’t set a deadline for compiling the data, &uot;but I had hoped it could be done before the end of the month,&uot; Smith said.

The Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority had also been talking forming an incentive fund.

&uot;I believe the businesses here would be willing&uot; to contribute to such a fund,&uot; said EDA Executive Director Michael Ferdinand. &uot;Public funds are tied to (a) project that is ready to execute. But private money might be used to take care of so-called ‘soft costs.’&uot;

Economic developers have said such costs could range from the expense of relocating key managers to the expense of setting up a temporary office for a company coming to the area.

&uot;When private money comes in, it does things public money can’t do,&uot; West said.

The way he sees it, businesses that would contribute to a private fund for economic development are &uot;just buying into the community.&uot;

&uot;We have to truly make a commitment,&uot; he said.

Industrial park

Some communities, like Brookhaven, have used private funds in part to help build industrial parks.

West said an industrial park is needed to help attract industry.

&uot;We have to have somewhere for them to go,&uot; he said. &uot;I think we’re moving close to getting (a park). We have quite a bit of information on the table, we’ve identified some monies to fund a study on a park.&uot;

&uot;We’re going to pursue developing attractive sites for business &045; both (developing) opportunities we already have and identified (parcels) for the future,&uot; Ferdinand said.

With that in mind, the EDA is pursuing a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help develop such a park.

&uot;Given the current budget constraints, we will seek as much outside funding as we can, state and federal Š and private,&uot; Ferdinand said.

Quality of life

West believes one of the main issues that must be addressed is support for Natchez’s public schools.

&uot;We have to address that, because that’s something everybody shies away from,&uot; he said. &uot;No industry wants to move in if its employees have to send their kids to private school.&uot;

Pharmacy owner Michael Winn, president of the Natchez Business and Civic League, also believes in the public schools. He believes they will be strong again after having gone through several shaky years.

&uot;Over the last few years, the school system has had a problem of instability,&uot; he said. &uot;Administrative changes every few years are not good for our kids. We’ve suffered because of that.&uot;

The public schools have the resources. And the board now in place is a strong one, he said.

&uot;We’ve got good thinkers out there. Maybe they will get involved. Maybe in addition to the business leadership forum we should have town meetings from time to time. It would be a good thing to have a time to talk things out.&uot;

Paying attention to the little things &045; as small as residents picking up litter when they see it &045; will also help bolster the area’s image for visitors and for prospective industries, Easterling said.

&uot;It’s like applying for a job. That (employer) looks at you that first time, and the impression’s made right then,&uot; Easterling said. &uot;The same thing with your county &045; you’ve got to make a good first impression.&uot;

Supervisors are working to secure grants to educate the public on the importance of such things as beautification and recycling, he said.

Byrne sees growing possibilities between Natchez and the local campuses of Alcorn State University and Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

&uot;Those combined campuses are one of the very positive things we have going on,&uot; he said.

Winn hopes attention will go to young people long before they become college age. He regrets that so few summer jobs are available for young people. &uot;There are thousands of kids with nothing to do in the summer.&uot;

He is excited about the new joint recreation commission, however. &uot;That will be really critical, to provide recreation for our youth. We want them to know we care about them.&uot;

Where is the leadership?

What else can the community do to improve its economic development efforts, attracting businesses but also bolstering those at home?

Winn sees a need for those with expertise to share leadership with all small business owners and entrepreneurs

in Natchez.

&uot;Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time recruiting industry,&uot; he said. &uot;I think we need to spend more time to help existing industries and smaller businesses which often get left behind.&uot;

Winn proposes regularly scheduled leadership forums. &uot;Invite the small business owners. Ask about their needs. Let them know about grants and loans available,&uot; he said. &uot;We have people who have the knowledge base to share with others. Opening a business from the ground up is a big job.&uot;

As president of the Natchez Business and Civic League, Winn works with many of the black business leaders. As a business leader himself, he meets many would-be business owners who have the good ideas and the talent but not the capital to start their companies.

&uot;There is a lot of talent in our community, but we don’t always reach out. We don’t always take the extra time with small business owners,&uot; Winn said. &uot;There is money out there, but people with the knowledge base are not always sharing.&uot;

In an earlier Democrat article about Natchez quality of life, Mimi Miller, preservation director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said she hopes one day soon to see more black-owned businesses in the historic downtown area as a way to get the city’s African-American people more involved in tourism as well as in business.

&uot;I think that would be excellent,&uot; Winn said. &uot;And if the businesses already there knew the full scope of some of the small African-American entrepreneurships, they would be knocking on their doors to get them downtown.&uot;

Winn cited an example of a business with hopes of locating on Main Street. &uot;They had a good idea and an excellent product. They just didn’t have the capital,&uot; he said.

The community is filled with capable leaders, Byrne said. Many simply do not want to get involved. &uot;I didn’t realize until after I was out of office how much it had affected my children,&uot; he said, referring to being in the public spotlight as a city leader.

&uot;Someone is out there who could be a leader in taking us forward,&uot; he said. &uot;But most business people who have strong leadership ability don’t want to put their families through it.&uot;

Byrne is impressed with the efforts by union members at International Paper’s Natchez mill to buy the plant and keep it open after IP’s closing date in July. He sees strong possibilities there of bringing often estranged elements of the community together.

&uot;The thing that might bring the community together more than anything has in years may be the possible buying of IP by the employees,&uot; he said.

&uot;Working together to save IP, the business community will see unions in a different light, and the unions will learn something about the business community.&uot;

All in all, most leaders are positive about where the community stands &045; and about how it can reach its goals.

&uot;We are not that far off,&uot; West said. &uot;But there is still a lot of work to do.&uot;