Why wait for our bright, shining future?

Published 3:07 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Natchez is different.

It doesn’t take many minutes in our fair city to come to that conclusion.

This town isn’t like many rural, small Mississippi communities that often lack the freethinking intellectuals. Nor are we the big city worried only with the bottom-line and the next business deal.

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And really, we aren’t even like the other towns that fall somewhere in the middle.

We are just different.

“Totally and utterly unique,” was what former Mississippi Development Authority Director Leland Speed said last week.

But I’m used to different. I grew up in a thriving Mississippi college town full of over-educated individuals, charm, passion, sports and community.

So when I came to Natchez, I spent the first two years telling folks, “Well, it’s not Oxford. But if there’s any other place in Mississippi remotely like Oxford, this is probably it.”

I didn’t mean Natchez and Oxford were the same, only that they are alike in their uniqueness.

It’s that uniqueness that makes both towns interesting to folks like Leland Speed. Their similarities make the towns interesting studies in economics.

The only difference is, Oxford’s at least five years ahead of Natchez, easily.

When I moved away from home three years ago the town was growing. Our old Wal-Mart had just turned into a new Super Wal-Mart. Ole Miss’s enrollment had climbed about 3,000 students during my four years there. Property values on the famous downtown Square were spiking upward in disgusting amounts.

A four-hour drive later and I was moving in to a town fresh from the wounds of the International Paper closure. More folks were going out than coming in.

I went home this weekend. And just as in every trip to Oxford in the last three years, I saw major construction projects that weren’t even dreamed of when I was a resident.

Condos, hotels, neighborhoods full of mansions, shops, more condos, restaurants, new roads, movie theaters, even more condos — the growth is unbelievable.

In fact, Oxford has implemented several moratoriums on new building permits recently. The population is expected to double, then triple in a decade’s time. The unemployment rate is the state’s fourth lowest. Money is everywhere.

But why?

It’s not the university, Speed says. It’s not the proximity to Memphis. And there have been no new industries whatsoever.

Oxford is different.

And the town has learned how to market “different.”

Speed actually points all of Oxford success to a single downtown bookstore — Square Books. I can’t bring myself to go that far, but I agree with his premise.

Oxford has succeeded because of its downtown, its hometown charm, its gorgeous setting, its uniqueness.

Why can’t Natchez?

It can. And it will, in time.

It’s impossible to destroy uniqueness. No one can ever take that away from us.

Poor leadership can only delay the inevitable.

But we don’t need any more delays. The locals without jobs can’t keep waiting. Our economy can’t continue its stagnancy.

We pay our city and county leaders and employees to market our town. But recent decisions by leaders make me think we can’t leave our future up to them.

True marketing best comes from the community. Word of mouth spreads faster and further than any city-produced pamphlet.

Speed studies small town economies. He’s confident there are big things in store for Natchez. A bright future is coming.

The only question is when? I’m tired of waiting, how about you?

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or Julie.finley@natchezdemocrat.com.