We have to show guests that we care

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 17, 2008

Nothing demonstrates an uncaring attitude more than a tattered American flag.

Surely you have spied a bunch of tired and faded strands whipping in the wind along the highway.

If you lived in Hattiesburg, you wouldn’t have to venture away from your television set to see these sorry displays of patriotism and pride.

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When I was living in the Hub City, the television station chastised business owners and homeowners for letting their flags waste away.

At least once a week, the station would use good old-fashioned peer pressure combined with video highlights to poke and prod people to change their flags.

Oddly enough, most of the owners of these worn out flags didn’t even know they had let their flags get in such condition. The flag waving out in front of their business or home had receded from their awareness — even for those that passed by the flagpole each day.

Amazing, isn’t it? If you live with something long enough, you stop paying attention to the details. It takes an outsider to bring the details back to consciousness.

Something similar happened Tuesday night in the Natchez City Council Chambers.

Earlier this year, a group of strangers visited Natchez to compile a list of the pluses and minuses that make up our city.

First impressions are what the visit was all about. In fact, that’s the name of the program sponsored by Mississippi State University that invited constructive criticism to help spur economic development in our city.

These invited strangers — many with economic development experience — scoured the town to compile a list of the things that both hurt and help the community.

They reviewed things like schools, civic buildings, Web sites, tourist attractions, housing and several other areas and compiled them into a report that mapped them out for the community to see.

Tuesday night, local civic and business leaders sat down to review the findings.

With a slide show, the First Impressions team leader identified what they considered the strengths and weaknesses of the area.

Watching the presentation, I was struck by the many eyesores they identified that I drive by each day without really noticing.

“This is stuff locals would never see, but visitors would notice,” the team leader said.

It took having these images projected on a large screen to realize what the first impression of Natchez really is.

In one specific example, the leader presented an image of a beautifully maintained property with manicured lawn and trees.

“This shows that the people care about where they live,” he said as audience members nodded in agreement.

“Then you are greeted by this,” he said as he flashed another image on the screen of another property sitting less than a block away. Trash was strewn among the tall weeds of an empty lot dotted with rusty poles.

At that moment, I recognized that what I see on a daily basis is not what an industrial prospect may see or what even a tourist sees when they visit Natchez.

More importantly, it is these details — old empty signage, litter, tall weeds, cigarettes butts — that add to the lasting first impression of all of our visitors.

These were not the only areas of improvement that were identified by the First Impressions team. Larger issues like infrastructure and the disparity between rich and poor were addressed. Obviously, those issues cannot be addressed by individuals — they must be tackled as a city and a county.

Yet, issues like litter, overgrown properties and other eyesores point out the responsibility each resident has in attracting industry to this area.

In the end, who wants to bring industry to a city its residents care little about?

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540.