Area tourism needs new ideas some say

Published 11:39 pm Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is the fourth in a six-part series based on the First Impressions study done by Mississippi State University. The series will explore local concerns and highlight what residents are doing to make improvements.

“You are more of an adult experience, but you do have to be creative and find some things for families to do. I’d hate to see a waterslide park on the river bank, but you could be creative and maybe do a model of the Mississippi River that was scaled down to size and could be a learning experience for children.”

NATCHEZ — When Allen Richard looks at the streets of Natchez, he sees potential for an undeveloped tourism industry.

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He wants to continue to promote antebellum and Victorian-era house tours, but he wants to do it with a twist.

Or maybe it’s a turn — of the handlebars.

The League of American Bicyclists bestows the title of “bicycle friendly community” on areas that meet certain criteria, and Richard wants to see Natchez receive that title and become a bicycling destination.

Click here for Part One: Natchez’s first impression

Click here for Part Two: Keeping up appearances

Click here for Part Three: Is downtown parking part of a bigger problem?

Click here for a pdf of the Natchez First Impressions report produced by Mississippi State University.

“In general, Natchez is a fairly bicycle-friendly area,” he said.

A number of reasons make Natchez a bicycle destination — the size and history of the city, the proximity of the Natchez Trace and even the surrounding countryside.

“Our county roads are in good enough shape and scenic enough that it makes good routes for going out to the country to ride,” Richard said.

Bicyclists could dovetail very easily with the existing tourism industry, Richard said.

“Middle-to-upper-income people who have money to spend want to get out and ride and see the sights, and when they finish that they want to come to town and shop and eat in the restaurants.”

Bed and breakfast owner Joseph Stone recently hosted guests who spent their weekend bicycling around the city.

Richard isn’t the only local resident dreaming about making Natchez a sports-tourism destination that would attract more than just the house-touring crowd.

Keith Benoist has worked over the last several years to make the annual Phatwater Kayaking Challenge on the Mississippi River a successful event, and he would like to see the area’s kayaking potential developed.

“We have got a lot of things, a lot of opportunity, but they would all require a good deal of investment,” Benoist said.

Part of what gives the area its kayaking potential is geography.

“We have a huge number of people from Wisconsin and Minnesota (who come to Phatwater), and they are having to put up their boats at that time of year because they face a lot of icy conditions up there,” Benoist said. “We can do it year-round here because we have weather that allows us to.”

In the short term, that might mean developing a nature-based, eco-oriented tourism for those who want to come into the area and experience its rural natural wonders.

“One of the best ways to do that is from a kayak — not only on the (Mississippi) river, but in areas like Anna’s Bottom, Old River or Lake St. John,” he said. “The opportunity and availability of access is here, we just haven’t had any interest in it.”

In the long term, Benoist would like to see a self-sustaining structure that recreates a whitewater environment similar to the ones constructed for Olympic events built in the area.

But to have a feasibility study conducted for that would cost $75,000, funds Benoist isn’t going to be able to come up with on his own.

“I have gotten no interest outside of my own,” he said.

And it’s a lack of new ideas within the Natchez tourism market that the members of the Mississippi State First Impressions team pointed out.

Natchez has plenty to offer tourists, the team’s report said. And the charm of the homes shouldn’t be lost, but it’s time to consider new ideas, they said.

Stone is already doing this, he said.

When the bicyclists staying at his bed and breakfast returned from an afternoon ride Sunday, they were met with a treat.

“All of my guests are offered a free concert of classical piano music with wine,” he said. “I would say it is (an effective marketing technique) because a lot of my guests do opt for the music, and I do get bookings from people who really want the music.”

For those who aren’t interested in music, Stone has a collection of antique maps and prints and a billiard table.

“Some like the billiards, some the music, some the maps and some just like the big hot breakfast,” he said.