Veteran businesses excited about downtown awakening

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 2, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Everytime Mary Lees Wilson, owner of the gift shop One of a Kind, gets back from market she says she feels energized.

Looking at the new and creative products offered each year and talking to vendors with creative and fresh ideas leaves Wilson with a renewed energy each year.

That is the way she feels about the current state of downtown Natchez.

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&8220;You can feel the energy,&8221; Wilson said from her Main Street store Thursday. &8220;It&8217;s like market. You see all the new and creative things and are revitalized, ready to put those new ideas to work.&8221;

Wilson, who opened her store in 1990, is like the handful of Natchez store owners who have watched the ups and downs of business in the downtown area since the oil bust of the 1980s.

In the past six months, she has seen an influx of new businesses open and continues to hear talk of people willing to invest in downtown.

Buildings that have sat empty for years are being renovated and filled up with a variety of shops. Just in the past six months downtown has added a new coffee shop, a cooking school, a needle point store, a luxury home store and several apparel stores.

&8220;People who are coming from Hurricane Katrina are enthusiastic,&8221; Wilson said. &8220;Their enthusiasm is contagious. You can&8217;t help but feeling good.&8221;

Brenda Zerby, owner of Moreton&8217;s Flowerland, calls it a &8220;renewed awakening.&8221;

Zerby, who opened her store on Franklin Street in 1983, points to activity that now fills the streets of downtown.

When Moreton&8217;s first opened its doors on Franklin Street the activity on the streets was almost silent. During the peak years of the oil bust, many areas of downtown would fall into darkness each night.

&8220;It would have been nice to have people on the streets,&8221; Zerby said.

With new stores and new apartments, dowtown is now thriving with people.

&8220;Now it&8217;s like there are lights on in stores and apartments,&8221; Zerby said. &8220;You see vitality.&8221;

Many veteran owners also pointed to the interest in apartment in the past decade as to one of the reasons downtown Natchez seems alive.

&8220;When we were first downtown, nobody was living in buildings,&8221; said Nancy Kimbrell, whose family moved Kimbrell Office Supply to its Main Street location in 1982. &8220;The downtown is really jelling this time. I think its improving.&8221;

But all the positive energy about downtown does comes with some drawbacks.

With all the people filling the downtown street, it has become increasingly hard for some to find parking spaces.

For many, including Dennis Short, co-owner of Darby&8217;s and Short Ltd., that is a sign of the good things happening downtown.

&8220;And it is nothing new,&8221; Short said.

Short pointed to a picture in the old Downtown Deli space that depicts an old scene of Franlklin Street with horses tied up along the street and another long line of horses that Short says looks like they &8220;circling the block to find a place to park.&8221;

But for Short the parking situation is a minor problem.

&8220;Brown Barnett and us were the only gift shops on the street when we opened in 1982,&8221; Short said.

&8220;Just count the number of gift shops on the street now,&8221; Short said as he pointed to each one on the street. &8220;There are seven just on this block alone.&8221;

And after 24 years of being

downtown, Short reiterated what many veteran businesses owners feel about the renewed interest in downtown.

&8220;We wouldn&8217;t want to be anywhere else.&8221;