Tourism leaders look at ideas for Natchez museum

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Ideas were not in short supply as Natchez tourism leaders met Thursday to consider ways to draw more visitors to the city with new attractions.

From a performing arts center on the riverfront to a museum of vice at Natchez Under-the-Hill, suggestions ran the gamut &8212; but with a consensus that always came back to the city&8217;s most important asset, the Mississippi River.

Guiding the meeting were consultants Hugh Spencer and Joy Bailey of Canada-based Lord Cultural Resources Planning and Management Inc.

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New Orleans developer Tom Bauer of Natchez, who plans to build a hotel across Canal Street from the Natchez Convention Center, sponsored the forum.

&8220;We&8217;ve looked at other towns that have reached the same crossroads as Natchez,&8221; Bailey said. &8220;They say, &8216;we want to take things to the next level.&8217;&8221;

Natchez is rich in attractions and events, including the historic houses, Natchez Trace Parkway and a downtown that sits right on the river with spectacular views, the group agreed.

Walter Brown, city attorney, said the views are key to any future tourism plans.

&8220;Our biggest asset is the riverfront and downtown,&8221; Brown said. To have an attractive downtown that leads to the river view is an asset few towns in the South can claim.

Sally Durkin of the Convention and Visitors Bureau said the questions she most often gets by e-mail from potential visitors are about the Mississippi River.

Consultants showed examples of projects completed by other cities and explained why some museums are more successful than others.

Even the most popular museums usually are not money-makers, Bailey said. &8220;The D-Day Museum (in New Orleans) is the only museum in the country that pays for itself,&8221; she said. However, a museum can increase visitation to a city.

Considering a museum project for Natchez inspired numerous thoughts &8212; a river museum, an African-American history museum, a cotton museum, a furniture museum, a children&8217;s museum, a civil rights museum and a comprehensive Natchez history museum, among others.

Bauer said he had heard that 600,000 tourists visit Natchez each year. &8220;I&8217;ve walked the streets, but I didn&8217;t see them,&8221; he said. &8220;I love the people coming in March, but I want them to come in August and December.&8221;

He advised tourism leaders not to forget the potential partnership at Alcorn State University.

&8220;Alcorn has some money, and that money can be parlayed about 25 times with a good idea.&8221;

His hope is for Natchez to think boldly. &8220;We don&8217;t have to build something that looks just like Natchez to attract more people here,&8221; he said.

Funding a new project should not blur the vision of a new attraction, Bauer said. &8220;Someone figured out how to build a visitors center, and I don&8217;t think you paid a penny for it.&8221;

Walter Tipton, city tourism director, said whatever ideas result from the initial and future meetings with consultants, &8220;the purpose is to complement what we already have in Natchez.&8221;

The pre-Civil War architecture is what has brought visitors to Natchez for 75 years. &8220;Antebellum homes are the icon of Natchez,&8221; Tipton said. &8220;But we are expanding, broadening and promoting more today.&8221;

Dr. James Coy of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours said the house tours have brought many visitors to the city. However, he now is working with tour guides and homeowners to change the way those tours are presented.

&8220;That loaf of bread has been on the shelf for a long time, and it has gotten stale,&8221; Coy said. &8220;We&8217;re now developing living history tours. And all of these houses could be interpreted for children.&8221;

Mimi Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation agreed. &8220;All the new ideas are wonderful,&8221; she said. &8220;But what can we do to our existing attractions to make them more attractive to different age groups? We need someone from outside our area to help us with that.&8221;

With its approximately 55-percent black population, Natchez must present balanced material in its museums and cultural programs, said Ser Seshab Heter C.M. Boxley.

&8220;Natchez has the history that could be marketed. If the civil rights museums bring thousands of school children to Birmingham and Nashville, why not to Natchez?&8221;

Mayor Phillip West said Natchez indeed can have the attraction of a Memphis or a New Orleans. &8220;We&8217;ve not taken the time to make Natchez the jewel it can be,&8221; he said.

Consultants will sift through information gathered at the more than three-hour meeting and will make a report.

&8220;This visit and that report cost $10,000, provided by Tom Bauer,&8221; Tipton said.

The next step is to find the funding, up to $100,000, to pay for a feasibility study once the group chooses a new attraction.

&8220;Then it will be 14 to 18 months to build the attraction, and by then, the Tom Bauer hotel will have been open for eight months,&8221; Tipton said.