Who knows who you might bump into

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2008

If you ever walked along the Vidalia Riverfront four years ago, you were assured of bumping into someone from Natchez.

It was a favorite spot to go for desperate photojournalists on a slow news day. I am sure many readers were tired of seeing Ben Hillyer photos of children splashing in the fountain or silhouettes of walkers pounding the concrete on the riverfront.

Many of my days staking out the riverfront looking for an interesting angle were spent meeting and talking to parkgoers. Inevitably I would meet someone from the other side of the river..

Email newsletter signup

Conversations with Natchez residents always seemed to lead to one topic — why can’t Natchez have something like the Vidalia Riverfront?

As people flocked to the Louisiana side of the river, the Mississippi bluffs in Natchez stood empty.

Many summer days, I would drive five or 10 times along Broadway Street in hopes of finding one person standing in the gazebo.

The Vidalia Riverfront became for some Natchez residents a symbol of how Vidalia was progressing and Natchez remained mired in the city politics and squabbling.

Interestingly, while people grumbled about the issue on the Vidalia Riverfront, incremental changes were happening in Natchez.

The area was evolving at such a slow pace that it was barely perceptible by regular visitors.

Bowie’s Tavern added outdoor dining tables. The Country Inn and Suites hotel was emerging from the empty lot in front of the convention center. The city contracted with the Lane Company to add a casino at the end of Roth’s Hill. The Natchez Trails project received funding.

All the while, businesses like Cock of the Walk and Old South Trading Post were catering to tourists and locals alike.

In the span of four years, signs of life have begun to spring up along Broadway Street and the Mississippi River Bluff.

On recent photography assignments, I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of people in the area.

During a walk from my parking place to a hotel event, I saw a group of people rehearsing for a wedding at the gazebo, diners along Bowie’s Tavern filling the restaurant’s outside dining areas, clusters of people strung along the edge of the bluffs overlooking the river, guests enjoying the view from the hotel’s park benches and children playing in the park’s fountain.

It was a refreshing change from those days when I felt like I was the only one around with no one to photograph.

Instead of a blank, dusty parking lot for the convention center, the hotel has become a link between two popular restaurants. It has helped contain people and make the street more lively.

Amazingly, Natchez may end up with a vibrant energetic riverwalk after all.

Imagine the potential. When Lane Company’s proposed grandstand at the foot of Roth’s Hill is complete, when the Natchez Trails project is finished, the area between Broadway and the river could evolve into a bustling entertainment district offering dining, concerts, recreation — all with one of the most amazing views in the world.

All the elements are there.

With a little more focus from the city and businesses to provide amenities, like wider walks, benches, lighting and more places for people to eat, meet and have a good time, Broadway could end up resembling smaller versions of other regional entertainment districts — like Memphis’ Beale Street, New Orleans’ French Quarter or Birmingham’s South Side.

Then who knows who you might bump into. It just might be someone from Vidalia.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.