Natchez, Adams County see big industry changes in past decade

Published 12:38 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

NATCHEZ — The telltale signs began early.

International Paper announced in July 2000 that it would sell its Natchez mill.

In January 2001 Titan Tire began layoffs; three months later 190 more workers were gone.

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Johns Manville closed in 2002, leaving 138 unemployed.

IP closed for good in 2003, displacing 640 workers.

By 2004 Natchez and Adams County were changed forever. Unemployment was obviously up. The city and county governments faced budgets without much much-counted-upon taxes from the big industries. And morale was waning.

“I always heard as a kid and when I was growing up that if IP ever closed, the last person out of Adams County should turn off the lights,” county Supervisor Darryl Grennell said.

And people did leave. By September 2005, public, private and parochial schools in Natchez had lost a combined total of more than 500 students.

But not everyone left, and the lights were never turned off.

“That was not a true statement” Grennell said. “It has proved to be fictional.

“Yes, (the closures) had a devastating effect on Adams County in terms of jobs and taxes, but we have been able to survive.”

Survival meant change.

In the years after IP’s closure, Copiah-Lincoln Community College saw its highest enrollment numbers ever. Many new students were former industrial workers headed back to school to learn a new trade, many at the ripe old age of 40 or 50.

But a bigger, and more long lasting, change was occurring too.

Natchez had a new economy by 2005, one based in the service industry of tourism.

The antebellum houses that had been with the community for decades became a necessary calling card. Restaurants, antiques and gift shops, bed and breakfasts and hotels joined the fray.

Pilgrimage turned 75 and had to focus on new ways of attracting guests.

Annual festivals such as the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race and the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration gained a greater economic importance than ever before.

“I think it’s been remarkable,” former long-time mayor Tony Byrne said. “The bell of doom had fallen with IP. Everyone was sure we would dry up and go away.

“It shows some toughness on the part of the people (of Adams County) to stick it out and stick with Natchez and Adams County until they got back on their feet.

“They are just survivors. Natchez has always been a surviving town.”

Surviving — not necessarily succeeding — has been the story of Natchez and Adams County this decade, Grennell and Byrne said.

“We’ve had some tough years here in Adams County,” Grennell said. “Hopefully down the road we will be prosperous, economically prosperous, as we were in the early 1950s.”

Both leaders and local Realtor and former alderman Sue Stedman said the end of the decade has brought industrial promise with the addition of Corrections Corporation of America’s Adams County Correctional Facility. The prison — which brought more than 400 jobs — is an example of the changes that occurred this decade, she said.

“The search for new jobs is different than what we are accustomed to,” she said. “We need to look at every opportunity out there.

“We are moving more and more toward a service industry, but there are still manufacturing jobs out there. We need to be looking toward other opportunities for those who can’t or don’t want to work in tourism. Look at all things, like the correctional facility.”

And Grennell said the promise of Rentech — a jet fuel plant which would employ several hundred — is something on which to hang hopes for the next 10 years.