Natchez canvas awaits right artist

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 2, 2009

Driving into Natchez from Vidalia, quick glances up river and down river reveal sad sights — and a serious question.

How in the world is it possible that two of the most scenic spots along the Mississippi River still sit undeveloped?

Much has been written about the Grand Soleil Casino’s plans south of the Mississippi River Bridge.

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The developers managed to get the former Ramada Inn Hilltop hotel reworked and they’ve completed tons of dirt work along the river’s edge, but construction progress dried up along with their funding.

Their development, however, is a private one, so it’s really their business what happens there. It’s a shame that it seems to have run out of steam for the moment. Hopefully, they’ll get their feet under them soon.

But the upriver glance reveals the city’s Roth Hill Road site. This is property owned by the citizens of Natchez.

Under the former city administration, a great deal of concern was placed on finding a developer for the site. Proposals were submitted and the city ultimately opted for a proposal from the Lane Company, doing business as Natchez Enterprises LLC or Natchez Gaming Enterprises LLC.

The developers wooed the city by painting pictures — aided by artist renderings of how the development might eventually look — in the city’s collective mind.

But it was the Lane Company’s presentation to the board of aldermen in December 2006 led by John Bell that pushed them to the top of the developer’s list.

Bell outlined a $48 million proposal that would be completed in November 2007.

City leaders heard a good plan and the assurance that it was going to move quickly.

But what sent the city to agree to the Lane Company deal was Bell’s assurance that the company was capable of quickly and completely financing the project.

In July 2007, the city signed a lease option agreement with the developers. The plan was for the city to allow Lane to enter into a long-term lease that would ultimately net the city more than $1 million a year in “rent” for the site once the casino became operational.

The cost of the exclusive lease option was $100,000 that had to be put in escrow until the deal was complete. The original lease option agreement was for a six-month term, but it was extended.

Now, two years after the original document was signed, all sides are still talking about the idea and construction has yet to begin.

Natchez Enterprises says its funding has fallen through and has blamed the national credit crisis for its funding woes. One has to wonder if the writing is on the wall and if Natchez Enterprises and the city are just delaying the inevitable.

The city has locked up precious riverfront property on a project that has lingered on for nearly two years past the initial opening date.

For now the site sits vacant with no definite timeline for construction in place and no solid funding either.

Roth Hill is a blank canvas, fully capable of being developed into a beautiful work of art. Natchez just needs to find the right artist.

Hopefully, the return trip from Vidalia soon will showcase a beautiful, bustling riverfront. Until then, promises and hope will have to suffice.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or