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Natchez Inc. sees need for industrial sites

NATCHEZ —Think of Adams County as a grocery store inviting, begging and maybe even dragging customers through its doors to shop.

But inside, all the would-be shoppers find is bread, water and a jar of peanut butter.

Now you understand how a prospective business or industry feels when its leaders consider Natchez for their next big project, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc., Adams County’s economic development entity.

“If you’re not going to stock the store, we’ve got to figure out some other alternative,” Russ said.

Stocking the store, Russ said, in economic development language means simply having available sites ready to go and ready to be marketed to businesses or industries that could move to the area.

Russ said Natchez-Adams County may never have some assets other areas have, such an interstate highway access, but the community can make better use of what it has through preparation and planning.

“There’s a whole lot of items that we can shape ourselves,” he said.

Early numbers from the 2010 Census indicate the Adams County has lost population.

“This is the third census in a row that showed declines,” he said. “It’s a huge, huge number that we’ve got to turn around. To do that, we’ve got to start improving our products.”

Continuing to operate with no significant inventory of sites will likely result in continuing to be out of the game of attracting new businesses to our area, he said.

“Companies that are looking to locate expect that property to be in place, expect it to be shovel ready and, quite honestly, we’re not in that ballgame at the moment,” Russ said.

‘Critical’ need

One of the state’s leading economic developers, Joe Max Higgins Jr., said having something to show prospective businesses is critical.

“You’ve got to have product,” said Higgins, CEO of The LINK, the economic development entity for Columbus-Lowndes County.

“When I got here, we had a spec building that we’d had for eight years, with no tenants,” he said, referring to a building built on speculation that a business might fill it. “Everybody had a bad taste in their mouths about spec buildings. Now, we’re going to build four to six of them.

“People asked, ‘Why are you doing that?’” he said.

“Simple. It’s bait. You’ve got to have land and you’ve got to have buildings to attract businesses.”

Natchez Inc. board member James Biglane said the next challenge for Natchez Inc. is helping to create a product economic developers can sell.

“It’s critical. We’ve got to have something to sell,” he said. “You’ve got to have land, yes, but it’s got to be developed.

“For Natchez to grow, we’ve got to have something to sell,” he said. “It’s just a matter of pure economics.”

Fast-paced timeline

An ever-increasing pace of business development means communities hoping to capitalize must have available sites ready at a moment’s notice, Russ said.

“Five years ago a business development in the $90 to $100 million range took three years to get from start to producing products,” he said. “That time frame now is probably about 14 months, or less.

“If it was a non-port related project and had to be in the ground in 14 months, we would not have that opportunity,” Russ said. “Ninety percent of all projects out there are non-port related.”

“It’s very simple: We’re going to have to improve our capital investment,” he said. “It’s important to stay focused for the long-term effort. This is not something that we can wake up tomorrow and the world is going to be right.

“We’ve got to think: Growth, growth, growth,” Russ said. “Those communities that have been successful, especially in a tough economy, are the ones where they’re prepared. Everything is in place. All of their assets are ready.”

Columbus and Lowndes County have built up approximately 4,000 acres of land that either is developed or can be developed, Higgins said. Their goal is to reach 6,500 acres. It’s a goal Higgins said is attainable.

But securing land is only part of the need. Getting it ready to be easy for a business to come in and build on is also needed, he said.

“Every parcel of land that we control, I have all the Phase 1s (environmental site assessments) done, all the cultural resources done, all the endangered species studies, all the soil borings done. They’re ready,” Higgins said.

Russ said at the moment, Natchez-Adams County would likely be incapable of competing for many projects simply because the lack of ready land would not meet many businesses’ time constraints.

If a project were brought up as an option by the Mississippi Development Authority, Russ said, hypothetically, “we’re scrambling trying to put something together, and it’s just not how it’s suppose to go.

“To not have (sites ready to go), is to not really participate,” Russ said. “If I’m a business that needs river access and I can get into St. Francisville, and they have a site ready, why would they say, “Look, we love you so much, we’re going to give you another 12 months to get ready? They’ve got options.”

Russ said while Natchez’s beauty and quality of life are amazing assets they alone will not bring business to town.

“For a long time, I think we’ve gone with the attitude, ‘This is Natchez, if you can get them here, it will sell itself.’

“But we’ve got to make the business case make sense here first,” Russ said. “If they can’t make money and make a world-class product here, it just won’t work.”

Good selling points

Despite the current lack of developed, shovel-ready industrial sites, Russ said Natchez-Adams County has some amazing assets that are useful in marketing the area.

“Not everybody in the world has the most industrious river in the United States flowing by its front gate,” he said. “Not everybody in the world has the resources of water and timber that we have.

“We’re blessed that we have access to those.”

The readily available water, in particular, may be an increasing benefit in the future, Russ said, as other areas of the country and the world find water supplies tightening.

“We’ve got tremendous water assets, both from an availability standpoint and from the river itself,” he said. “A lot of areas are not blessed with good water, even in Mississippi, but especially across the country. It’s going to continue to be more prevalent in the discussion.”

Ideal needs

Natchez Inc. currently controls the property at the site of the former Belwood Country Club, adjacent to the Adams County Port. The site is approximately 200 acres.

But Russ said that land at the moment isn’t “shovel-ready” due to most of it being in the flood plain.

For most purposes, that would require a levee to be constructed to keep out floodwaters.

“Constructing the levee actually eats up some of the property, so you end up with about 140 acres,” he said. “It’s also the only real acreage left that is usable for port projects. You really want to bank that property until you need it for a significant port user.”

The county owns some land adjacent to the Natchez-Adams County Airport that could be potentially developed, but Russ said the tract is not very big and also lacks infrastructure on site.

For non-port development, Russ said ideally the community could identify a good development site based on factors such as access to highways, rail and other infrastructure.

“We need 100 acres of shovel-ready land at all times,” he said. “You need a decent size tract that you’re able to expand and grow into, with a development plan that starts you out looking at 100 acres, then gives you an option to add another 100 and so forth.

“It’s exactly what Columbus has been doing,” he said. “We can either go forward for the next 300 years or we can continue to slide backward.”

Russ said although the 8-month-old Natchez Inc. is just getting off the ground, it’s time to start at least talking about site development.

“We’ve got to begin the dialogue to begin to solve that problem,” he said. “The spirit is there for the people of Natchez and Adams County to invest in the future.

“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to get there, it’s when we’re going to get there.”

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