Natchez can have best curb appeal, but government must take lead

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Downtown, the city’s streets and sidewalks are crumbling. Debris piles up in the flower beds, and it sits and sits and blows around, piles up a little more and sits, for weeks.

The city’s largest employer, with over 700 employees, closes its doors. Another, with 400 employees, is shuttered. Another key long-term employer shuts down, sending 250 workers to the unemployment lines. Other smaller industries follow suit, sending jobs to Mexico and overseas.

The city government grapples with an ever-shrinking budget.

Email newsletter signup

Sound familiar?

The real subjects of the story are Greenville, Ala., Allied Signal, Rheem Manufacturing and Russell Mills.

But insert &8220;Natchez, International Paper, Titan Tire and Johns Manville&8221; in place of the real-life subjects, and the plot flows almost seamlessly.

In Natchez, many of our curbs, gutters and sidewalks really are crumbling. There’s a stalk of corn growing on North Union Street (yes, on the street between the overlay and the gutter) that is as old as the leaves and debris that have been strewn in Main Street flowerbeds all summer, many there since the area was last cleaned for Spring Pilgrimage.

Trees hang un-pruned over the Franklin Street, creating something of a cave. I could go on.

But this is not a story of gloom and doom. The next chapter of the Greenville story is upbeat, positive and filled with success.

It is a story of a mayor and a city council who saw a need, made a plan and worked the plan. Greenville is a new place as to downtown curb appeal, and there is new pride among those who live there.

The next chapter of the Natchez story can be equally good, or better.

Three years ago, members of The Democrat staff began to study what was happening in Greenville, in preparation for writing the series of &8220;Curb Appeal&8221; stories published in the newspaper this week and a similar series published a couple of years ago. It has been interesting to watch, and there are lessons to be learned.

Going in, there were a couple of things we knew for sure: Natchez has the best potential curb appeal of any city in the South, but our maintenance of &8220;core&8221; curb appeal may be among the worst.

Here is a simple overview of what we learned:

4Cities all over the South are heavy into this type of work, from Vicksburg to Fairhope, Ala. Greenville just happens to be an example we know something about. All have their problems. But the low common denominator is city government’s single-minded focus on getting things right.

4The &8220;core&8221; of a city’s curb appeal is the streets, utilities (putting wires underground), curb, gutter, lighting and sidewalk of the core downtown area. In Natchez the core boundaries are roughly Madison, Orleans, Martin Luther King and Broadway.

4A smart leader starts in the middle of the core district, in our case at Franklin and Main, and builds out. Try navigating this area via sidewalk in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller, and you begin to get a sense of our problem and our need.

4Curb appeal responsibility extends to inbound corridors, structures and their owners and, of course, to all that is in the city limits. But getting the core in top shape is job one. That is where successful cities begin and focus their work.

4Fixing the core of the city is not the responsibility of a volunteer group. It is the job of city government, its engineering and public works departments. It is the job of city leaders to set the priorities and see the work gets done. It takes leadership, plain and simple.

4Volunteerism is important but is not the answer in creating core curb appeal. It is the &8220;dessert&8221; whereas the city’s work at the core is the &8220;meat and potatoes.&8221;

4Despite a declining tax base, solving a curb appeal problem is more about leadership, ingenuity, planning and implementation than about increasing a public works budget. For example, when the public works director told the Greenville mayor he could not manage the landscaping, maintenance and cleanliness of key areas of the town, the mayor reorganized the department. He hired a city horticulturist to manage part of the public works crew. He made a plan and held the crew accountable for following it. Downtown and key intersections are now literally &8220;garden spots.&8221; But the public works payroll has not changed. Towns all over the South are &8220;tending their garden&8221; in this way. We are not. And nowhere is it more important than right here, where tourism is a vital part of the economy.

4Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds provided the monetary fuel to do the infrastructure work in Greenville. The area is clean and &8220;like new&8221; and a wheelchair ride from one end to the other is safe and easy.

4After struggling for some time with internal grant writing, Greenville contracted with a professional grant writer, gave the grant writer their goals and tasked him with watching the grant &8220;radar&8221; and writing the applications. The grant money began to flow.

The Natchez bluff stabilization of several years ago and the recent lighting and overlay project that included Franklin Street are evidence of core progress in Natchez. That work and those who did it should be commended. But there is much more to do.

It’s time to get substantial &8220;core&8221; curb appeal work done in Natchez. Volunteers and private land owners will line up to help. But our city leaders must take the lead in getting us there.

Todd Carpenter

is publisher of The Democrat. He can be reached at 445-3618 or by e-mail at