Will future dreams for Natchez Convention Center come true?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Dreaming about what downtown Natchez could become is a natural for Ron Miller.

Will dreams come true &045; his and anyone else’s? Well, that depends on many things, such as commitment to the future by an entire city and agreement on what the future should bring.

The Natchez Convention Center has a big role to play. And the role will grow if the center continues to attract large groups &045; and if those groups can find hotel accommodations close by.

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&uot;We do need more rooms if we have the people to come,&uot; said Miller, an architectural historian and the executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

For now, the Eola Hotel is the convention hotel, he said. &uot;And it’s going to continue to be a convention hotel. It’s only a block away, door to door.&uot;

The Eola, often described as a charming older hotel and dating to 1927, is on the corner of Main and Pearl streets.

Plans for a hotel across Canal Street from the convention center are under consideration, and the overall scheme of the City of Natchez has included the possibility of a hotel there from early planning stages.

&uot;A hotel there that will fit into the architectural guidelines has been planned, maybe with underground parking and maybe even with an underground passageway to the convention center,&uot; Miller said.

His ideal vision, however, is of a hotel in the block of Franklin Street between Pearl and Wall streets, where he imagines the Eola could expand to provide more rooms as well as meeting rooms and banquet rooms for large convention groups as they spread out from the main convention center.

With more hotel rooms, downtown Natchez will become a busier place, Miller said. &uot;That would mean more people staying downtown, shopping downtown and spending money in the downtown area. It would mean activity all the time and shops staying open later at night. I think we need lots of hotel rooms downtown.&uot;

Plans for expanding the convention center when growth allows it will take the building all the way to Franklin Street, where the faSade will resemble that on Main, Miller said.

David Preziosi, like Miller, was heavily involved in the planning stages of the convention center in his role as Natchez city planner during that time.

&uot;The original vision we had for the convention center has been met, I believe,&uot; said Preziosi, now executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust in Jackson.

When city officials began to look at convention centers in other cities, they found most of them located on the outskirts of those cities.

&uot;We wanted to have something that would be connected with downtown and be a generator for businesses, restaurants and hotels downtown.&uot;

A year after opening is too soon to gauge the success of a convention center, Preziosi said. &uot;I think it will be a success across time, once it gets into that convention cycle, which takes three or four years. It takes a little time.&uot;

Continued development around the convention center is crucial, giving conventioneers more choices for shopping, dining and relaxing, he said.

Michael Ferdinand, executive director of the Natchez Adams Economic Development Authority, agreed that continued development of the downtown area is one of the most important links to success of the convention center and Natchez as a destination.

&uot;To make this venue more attractive, you’d want more downtown development, more recreation and leisure properties such as casinos, amusement parks and theme restaurants,&uot; Ferdinand said. &uot;The more amenities you have, the better you can sell the package to conventions.&uot;

Preziosi said more shops, restaurants and entertainment downtown &045; and having them open a little later in the day for convention-goers whose day ends at about 5 p.m. or so &045; will make the Natchez experience more memorable and bring conventions back to Natchez.

&uot;It’s great in the evening during Spring Pilgrimage, when you have the Southern Road to Freedom, Southern Exposure and the history pageant,&uot; he said. &uot;But other times of the year there’s not much in the evening besides bars.&uot;

A blues or jazz club would be popular, he said. And he is excited about the potential of a restored Ritz Theater on Commerce Street and the kinds of entertainment that might be offered there.

&uot;I think if Natchez really wants to push the convention center, everyone has to get together and work hard to see that the visitor experience is a good one and that there are things there to make them have a good time.&uot;

Moreover, an aggressive marketing plan is crucial to future success, he said. &uot;I don’t know how the marketing is going, but you have to spend some money to market a facility like the convention center.&uot;

More visitors will lead to growing parking needs. Some possible locations for two- to three-story parking buildings with attractive exteriors are the inner portion of the block on Main bordered by Wall and Canal, the parking lot area at Wall and Franklin streets and the parking lot area on Franklin between Pearl and Wall. &uot;I’ve seen some good-looking buildings in places like Charleston that are parking buildings,&uot; Miller said.

Further, Miller likes the kind of development begun by Natchez potter Conner Burns in the 200 block of Franklin, believing it could have long-term benefits for the city.

Burns recently opened a studio and gallery on that block across Franklin Street from the convention center and has begun classes and exhibits of his pottery.

&uot;I would love to see that blossom into Natchez becoming an artists colony,&uot; Miller said. &uot;It has happened in other neat little towns like ours. Natchez has the potential.&uot;

The Burns studio could inspire young artists to come to Natchez, could be &uot;the economic generator for incubating young artists,&uot; Miller said.

Natchez has many of the qualities a town needs to attract people and to grow, Miller said. &uot;We who live here often forget what we have. Very few places have the visual attractions Natchez has. We can capitalize on that.&uot;

Preziosi agreed and said the convention center itself is an attraction. &uot;Butch’s idea was that the bigger the facility was, the more people we could bring in. And he wanted the biggest exhibit hall in the state,&uot; Preziosi said, speaking of then Natchez mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown, who was the driving force behind the convention center idea and implementation.

That &uot;biggest exhibit hall&uot; label was one of the dreams achieved, &uot;even bigger than Hattiesburg,&uot; Preziosi said. &uot;But now Hattiesburg is expanding because of its growth.&uot;

That can happen in Natchez, also. &uot;Natchez is a place people love to see. The town has so much to offer,&uot; he said.

Miller capped his dreaming with what he called his &uot;pie in the sky&uot; idea &045; to see the block where a new hotel may be built between Canal and Broadway, bordered by Main and Franklin, to become instead like Jackson Square in New Orleans on a smaller scale.

&uot;It would be a plaza, a park, with buildings on three sides, where artists could congregate and musicians could play and people could gather,&uot; he said.

&uot;It’s a dream, but I know the conditions are not right for it now. That doesn’t mean it might not happen in the future.&uot;