Is downtown parking part of bigger problem?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is the third 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 have a really cool, charming town, but we found that if you aren’t from Natchez, sometimes people aren’t the most welcoming. If I’m the (business or industry) recruiter coming in, I really want to see how my employees are going to be treated. If I find I’m coming to a community that if I didn’t live there for 50 years, I’m never going to be a part of the town, that’s really going to influence me.”

John Brandon

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Jackson resident and member of the First Impressions team

NATCHEZ — Bill Furlow won’t park in front of his own coffee shop, and he doesn’t want any of his employees parking there either.

Furlow and his wife own the Natchez Coffee Company, and as part of his involvement with the Natchez Downtown Development Association, he helped coordinate an effort meant to encourage downtown business owners to park away from their businesses and off of downtown’s main streets.

“If people are going to shop downtown they have to be able to park,” he said.

Part of Furlow’s effort included persuading two downtown banks to allow shop owners and their employees to use their lots for parking to free up spaces on the street.

But some business owners never got on board, Furlow said.

“Some don’t have that sensitivity,” he said.

Furlow and others in the business community still see Natchez as fertile ground to cultivate new business.

Click here for Part One: Natchez’s first impression

Click here for Part Two: Keeping up appearances

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

Kelly’s Kids founder Lynn James said when she looks at Natchez, she welcomes and wants more businesses to come to the area.

“The more the merrier,” James said. “No one wants to see a dead town when they’re thinking of starting a business. Growing likes growing.”

But members of the Mississippi State University First Impressions team didn’t always encounter that attitude when they visited local shops and businesses, their report notes.

The team’s report says several employees in shops around town seemed reluctant or even unable to offer help to visitors. Merchants often parked in front of their businesses, blocking access for visitors, the report says.

And sometimes its the little things that encourage businesses and industry to come to town, said John Brandon, associate manager of existing business and industry for the Mississippi Development Authority.

“People today can go anywhere they want in this world, or they can shop on the Internet,” Brandon said. “As a business owner I can take my company anywhere. Recruiting business and industry is more than just a location. Quality of life is extremely important.”

And that’s an issue that concerns Furlow. In order to better recruit potential developers, Furlow said he believes there are things that must be done in the community.

First on the list is public school improvements. But that responsibility doesn’t fall only on the school district’s shoulders, he said.

“The business owners and the city need to have a greater sense of ownership than we do,” Furlow said of the school system.

After-school programs like tutoring and recreation could go a long way to improving the school system and making Natchez more attractive to business developers, he said.

“They could help without interfering in the school’s autonomy,” Furlow said of a city-sponsored after-school program.

Next, the town needs to embrace the idea of small business, he said. Furlow said he thinks Natchez isn’t in a favorable geographic location to host an operation such as Toyota, but he and others said smaller businesses are the key to Natchez’s longevity and economic viability.

President of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce Debbie Hudson estimated 80 percent of the businesses in Natchez have 50 or fewer employees.

“They’re very important to our economy,” Hudson said.

And James, who employs 45 locally, said she’d also like to see more small business development in the area.

Furlow said he sees those smaller businesses as having an opportunity to make a significant impact on the economy.

“If you have a company with 25 employees and they’re making $50,000 a year, and there are 10 (businesses) like that in town, that’s a pretty good impact on our economy,” he said.

But to attract those businesses, Furlow said one of the most important things that can be done is for the community’s leaders to make a united front in actively attracting development in the area.

Furlow said while he understands the need for keeping business deals quiet at times, when possible, locals should be informed.

Though he doesn’t have all the answers, Furlow said he has high hopes for Natchez.

“I know this can be a great city,” he said.