City’s map for future crucial to long-term success

Published 12:01 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

NATCHEZ — The face of today’s Natchez began with a plan years ago. From Pearl Street’s federal courthouse to the city’s convention center, all were part of a master or comprehensive plan.

That plan was first drafted in the 1950s and updated, most recently, in 1999. After a failed update three years ago, the plan has essentially remained unchanged. If other cities are any indiction, an up-to-date master plan is crucial to future success.

City Engineer David Gardner said he feels the time has come to update Natchez’s plan.

Email newsletter signup

“I think it’s good business to update the comprehensive plan every 10 years and I think it’s about time we do it,” he said.

The University of Mississippi’s Community Development Research Associate Cari Varner said a well thought out master plan is an integral part of any city’s long-term success.

“It really gets everyone on the same page,” Varner said. “It helps people work to an achievable goal.”

Varner described a city’s master plan as a sort of map for the future.

One major theme that runs through most master plans is that of land usage, she said.

“You don’t want a noisy factory next to your preschool,” Varner said.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said that his city’s master plan was developed largely along those lines, so that residential and commercial areas were clearly defined for future growth.

Once the commercial areas are defined in the city’s comprehensive plan, it is a matter of business recruitment, Copeland said.

“It’s like the saying goes,” Copeland said. “If you build it they will come.”

Completing and changing plans

The Natchez plan that was developed in 1951 was updated and adopted Nov. 23, 1999.

Plans to update it were made three years ago when the city hired an urban development planner, Mayor Phillip West said.

Those plans changed when Hurricane Katrina hit and the planner, who is from the New Orleans area, got involved in the hurricane’s aftermath.

“We were never able to bring into fruition what he had intended in updating our master plan,” West said.

However, Gardner said several comprehensive plan objectives have been completed or are in the process of being completed. A few of these include the National Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture museum, acquiring land for the Forks of the Road, building the convention center and encouraging new hotels to come into town.

Alderman David Massey said bringing in the convention center was a major priority of the city in relation to the master plan.

“That was a goal and we accomplished it,” Massey said.

He said another top priority was securing Lane Company to bring in the new casino on Roth Hill Road.

Gardner said the master plan has been helpful in guiding city officials and from it, the city has accomplished a lot.

“I’ve been real pleased with our successes and what we’ve done,” Gardner said.

Future goals

There are several objectives that West said he would like to see added to a comprehensive plan, but not having them on a plan doesn’t mean they can’t be worked on.

The first is working on roads in town, or as West calls them the four major arteries. These roads are Martin Luther King Jr. Street, D’Evereux Drive, East Franklin Street and Homochitto Street.

Alderman Bob Pollard said infrastructure is at the top of the list.

“Our top priority is safety, security for our citizens,” he said. “Street repairs are the main thing on our list right now.”

Gardner said he would like to see consolidation of governments added in an updated comprehensive plan.

“It makes really good sense to consolidate (city and county government,)” Gardner said. “We’re already duplicating so many services like fire, recreation, security.”

Gardner said consolidation could relieve some annexation pressures too.

“It would certainly tax away the need to annex a lot,” he said.

Also, for county residents fearing high city taxes, he said taxes would be lowered by consolidation.

“You could run government more efficiently,” Gardner said. “Take out duplication and you would definitely save money.”

Alderman James “Ricky” Gray said when it comes time to update the master plan, whenever that may be, all the aldermen will be given an opportunity to weigh in.

“When you’ve got six different aldermen, you’ve got six different plans,” he said.

A business wish list

While city leaders have their own ideas of how Natchez should be developed, various groups across the city have their own ideas as well.

Executive Director of the Natchez Downtown Development Association Carrie Lambert said she would like to see a focus put on further developing downtown added to the city’s master plan.

To that end, Lambert said she would like to see a research team brought in to analyze the downtown area.

“We could use a group to study what we need in the area and how to best develop it,” she said.

President of the Natchez Business and Civic League Andrew Calvit said he would like to see support for area public schools and a plan to develop recreation added to the master plan.

Calvit said he believes an investment in education would ultimately benefit the city in the long run.

Planning to plan

West said it’s hard to say what exactly needs to be added to the plan because needs change from year to year.

Alderman Jake Middleton said it is appropriate to have a long-term plan but plans do change and the city has to adapt to that.

“I think it’s good to lay out a plan but sometimes you have to change that plan accordingly as years go on and you progress,” he said.

As for making future, long-term plans, West said he would like to have professional help in doing so.

“I just think we need someone with more expertise than I have to look at what our potential is based on what’s happening right now,” he said.

He said he wants to encourage economic growth while maintaining the uniqueness and small-town qualities of Natchez.

Help could be found through the Mississippi Municipal League, a group to assist and educate elected municipal officials.

“Basically they are a support group for all municipal officials throughout the state,” West said.

West said there’s always the possibility of approaching the league to help find someone with the credentials to upgrade a city’s master plan.

“We can always access them with that kind of issue,” he said.

However, he said the first priority would be to find a city planner.

“We’ve been slowed by the fact that we haven’t had anyone in our planning department,” he said. “Our No. 1 (priority) is to have a certified city planner, then that person, depending on their level of expertise, can help guide us in terms of accessing an urban planner.”

Past Natchez leaders said plans, well laid out in the past, have made Natchez what it is today.

Former Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said his administration embraced the city’s master plan.

“It shaped the city we have today,” he said. “And a plan on paper helps to act as a road map.”

Brown said during his time as mayor he adopted the master plan from the previous administration of Tony Byrne.

Butch said after a careful review of Byrne’s plan adjustments were made and the groundwork for development began.

Brown said much of what is seen downtown today was all part of a previous master plan.

Including the courthouse, Brown said the consolidation of city, county and other services in a couple of downtown blocks was all laid out years ago.

But Brown and Byrne both warned that projects that will carry Natchez into the future need to begin now.

Even if a master plan is not followed to the letter, Byrne said it is still critical for any city to have one in place to keep projects moving forward.