Last bell hasn’t tolled for Natchez

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This holiday season looks to be markedly quieter.

It might be a relief to some not to battle with that tinge of guilt as they exit Kmart with purse strings pulled tight, passing up the chance to donate to those in need.

But the silence where the Salvation Army bell ringers used to be marks a depressing dong in the life of our community.

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The non-profit agency, which closed its Natchez doors Monday, has been a part of the community since 1904. It has aided countless families in their times of need, and it has helped dozens of fortunate volunteers give back.

But with the doors to its at times unkempt Canal Street building locked for good, the community can’t help but feel like the charity has turned its back on Natchez during one of our greatest times of need.

The writing was on the wall.

In 2003, the agency eliminated the Salvation Army Auxiliary, a group of local volunteers who coordinated fundraising and awareness.

In 2007, the thrift store moved from Canal Street to the Belmont Shopping Center, a short-lived experiment about which even the board members seemed to have their doubts.

Without much advertising of the move, less visibility and a location surrounded by businesses, not residents in need, the store’s sales dropped and the thrift store moved back to Canal Street.

In August 2009, the store closed for 30 days due to funding woes.

Later that month the agency announced it was selling the church building attached to the thrift store. No offices or church services were offered in Natchez at the time. The building is still for sale.

And in May of this year, Salvation Army employees complained that donations of clothing and other items dropped off in the parking lot were being stolen before they ever entered the store.

Last week a divisional public relations director — to whom all questions for the local field representative were directed — said it was ultimately low sales and high crime that led the state and national offices to close the Natchez chapter.

But why close a non-profit days before the true giving season begins?

As Salvation Army board member Albert Metcalfe pointed out, the noisy bell ringers raised $25,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.

The agency was also on the list for United Way appropriations, which would have come in early 2011.

Last year, the Salvation Army received $4,000 in local United Way funds and $5,393 in United Way-administered FEMA funds.

Couldn’t $200 be found to install an alarm system that would likely have deterred the “high crime?” What about a security camera?

Could the agency have better publicized the request that donations be brought indoors, not dropped in the parking lot?

Metcalfe acknowledged that the existing board had become a bit inactive; he was the only one to attend the last meeting.

It sounds, to me, like a new board was in order.

The Miss-Lou is one of the most giving communities in the country. Just ask the leaders of other non-profits and the victims of tragedies.

But I’m afraid raising funds is simply a matter of having the right person do the asking of the right people. For years the Salvation Army — run mostly from afar — hasn’t been dialed into that aspect of the community.

The added challenge of being in the midst of a construction zone for weeks surely made things difficult at the Salvation Army.

Times are tough and donations and sales have slowed for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we can just pack up and leave town.

The Salvation Army may feel differently, but this community knows hard times call for harder work. This lack of a Salvation Army bell toll must be a reminder of that fact.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551. or