Public-private partnership hits the ground running

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 11, 2010

NATCHEZ — Although Natchez, Inc. was officially born June 1, the public-private partnership has worked hard to keep its collective nose to the grindstone and its eyes on the railroad since April.

At this stage, Board of Directors Chair Sue Stedman said the group’s members are focusing on the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations and reeling in a top-notch executive director. However, the group has already entered into talks with companies about setting up shop in Natchez.

Natchez, Inc. board member Glenn Green said the private aspect of the group allows it to get things accomplished efficiently.

“It makes (Natchez, Inc.) more nimble and able to make decisions quicker,” Green said.

Natchez, Inc. bylaws require the group to meet on the third Wednesday of each month, but Green said lately the group has met on a weekly basis.

Stedman said Natchez Inc. has already been in conversation with three major prospects, although she could not be specific because the companies prefer their interests to remain undisclosed to the public at this point. Two of the prospects were also in talks with the former Natchez-Adams Economic Development Authority, and one is a brand new recruit.

Stedman said she met with officials from the coal-to-liquid fuel producer Rentech when they came to Natchez in the spring, and Natchez, Inc. has kept in touch with the fuel producing company.

“They are working as hard as they can to get permits and work on funding sources, she said.

Stedman said several otherpotential industries have contacted Natchez, Inc. with inquiries. However, Stedman said she cannot be as sure of the seriousness of those companies’ interest in coming to Natchez as she is of the other three projects.

As for the railroad, Stedman said Natchez, Inc. has made efforts to open conversations with Natchez Railway, LLC, owner of the lone railway line that connects Natchez to other lines in Brookhaven.

Local officials believe the company may be planning to close the rail.

Natchez, Inc. hopes conversation will shed light on the company’s intentions with the railroad and open up the possibility of negotiations.

Stedman said Natchez, Inc. is aware of “other parties” interested in operating the line.

“We have some preliminary plans depending on what we learn,” she said.

Natchez Inc. board members include one appointee from the City of Natchez, Adams County, the Chamber of Commerce and the Natchez Business and Civic League and three appointees from Natchez Now, the nonprofit fundraising arm of Natchez, Inc.

Green said the board also has a variety of professional experience crucial to economic development.

Green said he and Stedman work in real estate, which gives them the know-how to negotiate deals from start to finish.

Board member James Biglane’s experience as chairman of United Mississippi Bank will help to assess whether applicants can afford their proposed projects.

Former mayor Philip West and former alderwoman Stedman possess the political savvy necessary to communicate with government, Green said.

Member Margaret Perkins sees facts clearly due to her work as general manager of a media group, he said.

And Green said Chamber of Commerce Director Debbie Hudson communicates very well.

“(The group) has jelled up pretty good,” Green said.

“Everybody has different talents that can be called upon.”

Each director can serve three years, with the option of serving an additional three years. After serving six years, an appointee must step down for one year before joining for a third term.

Natchez, Inc. operates from the office where the former EDA worked. Two previous EDA administrative employees, Winnie Kaiser and Cynthia Lyles, have remained on staff, as well.

Natchez, Inc. will deliver quarterly reports to the Adams County Board of Supervisors, Board of Aldermen and the mayor. But so far, communication to these groups has been more frequent.

Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said Natchez, Inc. recently met with the supervisors to update them on their executive director search. Grennell said the group has been doing a good job keeping in touch with the board of supervisors.

Grennell said Natchez, Inc.’s approach to operating sets it apart from the former EDA.

One method that impressed him was the Natchez, Inc. “one-stop shop” concept. With the county’s permission, Natchez, Inc. now has the authority to scout county property and show it to prospective industries rather than involve government officials.

For instance, Grennell said companies interested in property at the port and airport could communicate exclusively though Natchez, Inc. to look at certain properties. In the past, this shopping process would require many players and take more steps.

He added that the property available for private development does not include airport hangers or usable portions of the port, only the surrounding land.

“The old EDA would call the county and say, ‘Can I show this property?’ We basically granted (Natchez, Inc.) the autonomy to show properties,” Grennell said.

Grennell said Natchez, Inc. would also provide companies with materials listing incentives for locating in Natchez as part its streamlined recruiting.

“The old development authority did an excellent job also, but from what I can observe so far, the methodology is going to be different now. You’ve got that one-stop shop concept, and it’s wonderful that part of (Natchez, Inc.) is the business community,” Grennell said.

Natchez Now, the private group responsible for raising funds for Natchez, Inc., is comprised of more than 50 private sector members.

Besides raising funds, Green said Natchez Now has other important functions.

Natchez Now keeps Natchez, Inc. plugged into ideas and concerns of the business community and can also serve as a sounding and advisory board for any questions and concerns Natchez, Inc. directors might probe.

Natchez, Inc. was formed when concerns over the previous EDA’s effectiveness led to a third-party study, which recommend private-sector involvement. The state legislature approved the change earlier this year.