Area leaders say the Miss-Lou has everything necessary for building the future

Published 4:05 pm Sunday, February 25, 2007

The blocks are on the table, and it is time to start building.

The river, downtown, tourism, health care, small business and architecture are all pieces of the grand construction that will be the future of the Miss-Lou, experts say. What the community does with the blocks is up to its people.

Natchez has more potential than almost any other Mississippi town, former Mississippi Development Authority Director Leland Speed said.

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The future needs one thing, though, Speed said — community vision.

Making the most of what you have

First things first, Speed said, Natchez needs to better utilize the Mississippi River.

“Us visitors think that’s a big deal,” he said.

Natchez needs housing that overlooks the river and it needs something to draw tourists and residents to the bluff, he said.

From the beauty of the river to the downtown architecture, Natchez has plenty to encourage tourism, he said.

And locals can see growth already starting in the tourism market.

The two hotels under construction on Canal Street have exciting implications for tourism, said Dr. James T. Coy III, manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

“Getting a hotel adjacent to the convention center will possibly affect the bookings at the convention center,” Coy said. “And in addition, we have the proposed (casino) development of a reportedly highly respectable group, Lane Company out of Atlanta, at the riverfront site.”

Traditional tourism is changing and growing too, Coy said.

“And I think we’re moving in the direction of becoming more diversified in our tourism,” he said.

Sites such as the William Johnson House and Forks of the Road are good signs of moving in that direction. The addition of living history tours that focus on the people, not just the houses are another change.

Natchez and Vidalia need to market themselves together, said Vernon Stevens, chairman of the Vidalia Chamber of Commerce board.

“I think tourism is going to be a key for development for the area,” he said.

“With Vidalia’s convention center and Natchez’s convention center, I think we’ll have some conventions that spill over.”

Something Natchez doesn’t have that it should add, Speed said, is an architectural tour.

“One of the things I really enjoy is looking at the architecture in the residential areas,” he said. “You’ve got something nobody else has got.”

Walking communities and downtown living are national trends right now, Speed said. Natchez has the perfect mold for this market. It’s the lofts and lattés in Mayberry theory — small communities thrive when they are centered on a lively downtown.

“This is what Natchez’s real strength is,” Speed said. “Being a neat place.”

Taking the next step

To truly capitalize on all its small town charm Natchez needs to clean up a little, Speed said.

Buildings downtown need to be restored. And the financial incentives to do this are enormous, he said.

Tax credits for work on historic properties can add up to 51 percent of the costs.

Miss-Lou community leaders and residents sing the same sentiments all around the table.

Natchez resident Jim Sanders said he thought the appearance of a town was not only important to bring in business and tourists, but was the most vital thing in a tourist community.

“We know what we need to do,” he said. “We need to do something about it. I don’t think we as a city follow through on things we need to do. We’re a tourist town and that’s what we’ve got going for us.

“We’ve got hundreds of people coming (for Pilgrimage), and you look right across the street and you see those three shacks. We’re trying to promote beauty. I know we’re making progress, but I think we’re not making it as fast as we need to.”

And the cleanup needs to extend to enforcement of city ordinances too, civic leader and volunteer Maria Bowser said. City sign ordinances need to be stringent, she said.

“I’d like for us to be less tacky and to look as classy as we really are as a city,” she said.

Construction with the future in mind, such as the work at the intersection of the Natchez Trace and Liberty Road, will make a big impact, residents said.

“Seeing that construction shows us how nice it will be in the future to have a cleaner entrance into Natchez,” Coy said.

“With that wonderful Natchez Trace Parkway entrance into Natchez, it should inspire us to continue to think about other entrances and how important appearances are,” he said.

Appearance is important for more than just tourism, said Pat Biglane, the chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce board. Looks play a big part in bringing in business, too.

“If we continue to improve the aesthetics of our area, little things like making sure the medians are cut and trash on the side of the road is picked up, we should continue to do more of that.”

Industries of the future

Studies and predictions say health care will double its profitability in 10 years, Speed said.

The large, money-making industry in the Miss-Lou doesn’t need to have anything to do with smokestacks, but everything to do with medicine, he said.

Darryl Grennell, president of the Adams County Board of Supervisors, said he’d definitely like to see more growth in the health care realm.

Adams County needs to attract patients who might currently be going to Jackson or Baton Rouge for their medical needs. In turn, more patients would attract more specialists to open offices in Natchez, Grennell said.

Dr. Fred Emrick is a radiologist and partner in Riverpark Medical Center who has already invested in the Miss-Lou. Emrick said he was excited about the future of medical care.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “Compared to five years ago, when industries were closing and things were dying out, I think we’re turning a corner.”

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said local growth in the medical world has been a big boost in recent years.

“The doctor’s complex on the Riverfront and Promise (Specialty Hospital), which is in the process of building a new complex, this is two-fold,” he said. “No. 1 it helps the health care community in Vidalia, but it also creates jobs.”

The other major industry there for the taking is the second-home industry, Speed said.

“I know three people in Jackson that have a second home in Natchez,” he said.

Second-home owners spend their money in town, spilling over into the service industry.

Financial services, hospitals, homecare, these businesses can all be major economic players, Speed said.

“Traditional industrial development, of course, go after that, but that’s not going to be where new job growth is going to come from,” he said.

“Stop worrying about what you don’t have and focus on what you do have.”

Forrest Johnson III is a young adult who returned to his hometown in 2003, choosing to return to the service industry in Natchez rather than work in larger cities.

A financial advisor with Morgan Keegan & Co., he earned a master’s in business administration from the Alcorn State University graduate school of business in Natchez and appreciates the importance of the presence of Alcorn and Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.

“I do think positive things are ahead for Natchez. There is a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunity,” Johnson said.

“There are new developments, new neighborhoods under construction and expansions of businesses.”

Working with weaknesses

The quality of the K-12 educational system appears in the top five hot spots of most economic development lists.

And education in the Miss-Lou has its red flags. The schools are largely split according to race and economic status, and the public schools aren’t academically where they want to be.

Despite slowly improving test scores, education is still a concern for most local residents.

Stephen Caruthers, customer service manager for Entergy in Natchez said one of the most important building blocks to put in place is education.

“If you don’t have a good education system, people won’t come,” he said.

Johnson agreed, saying Co-Lin and Alcorn offer a great higher education, but K-12 needs attention.

“Education is the next step,” Johnson said. “From kindergarten on up, we need to focus on education.”

They are right, Speed said, but education may not mean as much to economic development as people tend to think, he said.

“It’s not a killer,” Speed said. “Seventy-two percent of all households have no children. Over 50 percent of adults are single. Having K-12 not being what it ought to be is not good, but it’s not a killer.”

A community vision

A little over a year ago things started looking up in the Miss-Lou.

International Paper was long gone and it was time to look forward. Hotels, casinos and Rentech have made the headlines for nearly two years.

And with the headlines came hope.

The hope is still here.

But it is time to build, everyone says.

“If Natchez is a flower, it hasn’t bloomed,” Caruthers said.

But the bud is ready to open.

“We don’t want to be a Jackson or a Baton Rouge,” he said. “We want to be a place that attracts people from those places to come here on the weekend.”

Work has begun.

Progress is easy to see if measured by construction, said William Terrell, editor and publisher of The Bluff City Post.

“We’re seeing a redirection of Natchez in a way,” he said.

“Look at 61 South at the new development across St. Catherine Creek,” he said. “Look at the new Doctors’ Pavilion and the new Walgreens. Look at the new development on 61 North.

“And for the first time I can remember, there are two hotels going up at the same time on the same street,” Terrell said.

But there are untouched blocks.

“I think things are going in the right direction, but I think we need to keep on working together to get more business to come to our area,” Biglane said.

“It’s going to take some time. We’ve got to have building blocks, we’ve got to have a foundation. I think the economic development authorities are doing a good job of laying that foundation to try to attract new business, but it’s not going to be overnight.”

Sammy Porter, president of United Mississippi Bank, said he thought the Miss-Lou should take steps to entice employers.

“The main thing the community needs is jobs. Period. We made some progress with Rentech and other potential (employers). The bottom line is we need to have jobs. It affects the community more than any other source of money.

“Everything revolves around jobs. We always talk about it. You might get this, you might get that. The bottom line is we need to figure out how to get jobs into the community.”

The area would make even more progress if everyone worked together to pull in industry, he said.

“The main thing is to be one voice, for everybody to work together. In the past, (companies) have gotten different information from different groups trying to get them in. We need to be a single source.”

Once the Miss-Lou decides to be that single entity with one goal in mind the potential is enormous, Speed said.

“Natchez has that window staring them in the face in my opinion,” he said. “The history, the architecture, the river, it all comes together creating a unique place to live.

“It’s totally and utterly unique.”

Joan Gandy, Julie Finley, Katie Stallcup and Wesley Steckler contributed to this report