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Census leaves area with stretch marks

When one loses weight, it is easy to stash away the extra-large T-shirts and size 40 pants for something a little more svelte and flashy.

If only Natchez or the Miss-Lou could do the same this year.

According to the 2011 Census, Natchez and the surrounding area has been on a diet. We’ve lost a few pounds.

Having lost more than 2,000 residents, Natchez has gone from a size 12 to a size 8 in 10 short years.

The weight loss is not unexplained. The loss of meals provided by Johns Mansville, Titan Tire and International Paper put the area on a diet.

The only problem is the city can’t cast away its baggy clothing for a new wardrobe.

No. Natchez and most of the Miss-Lou is stuck with its stretch marks and oversize apparel.

For a city that means vacant buildings, empty neighborhoods and crumbling infrastructure.

It’s one of the dilemmas shrinking cities like Natchez fear the most. How do you stretch a dwindling tax base across the same area?

Most leaders will tell you it’s far easier to grow a city than to shrink it.

Everyone likes to see new roads and sewer lines. Expanding fire protection and waste management services are usually popular.

A growing tax base allows for new parks, schools and recreation opportunities.

But when industries leave, people inevitably follow.

Like Swiss cheese, pockets of rundown properties and vacant buildings pop up all over once thriving neighborhoods.

As the population shrinks, the miles of road to pave remain the same and the square miles of city to protect remain the same. Fewer dollars must stretch to provide the same city services.

Potholes form, water lines break. Sound familiar?

A couple weeks ago, the government released new census numbers for Adams County and Concordia Parish.

Since 1980, when the populations of Adams County and Concordia Parish reached their zenith, both areas have seen steady declines. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the area’s population has decreased by nearly 17 percent.

The numbers leave area leaders in a quandary. How do you continue to keep up the same size area with fewer dollars?

With a shrinking budget, which neighborhood roads get attention? Which ones do not?

What services get fully funded? Which ones do not?

Those are hard questions for any leader to answer, because the answers inevitably leave voters angry and disappointed.

But the biggest disappointment may be in doing nothing at all.

When asked about the census numbers, most leaders responded without surprise. They knew it could be bad. What could they do about it?

None responded with anything like a burning passion to find creative solutions to our current predicament.

Now more than ever, we are dependent not just on our leaders but on our entire population to work together to plan and organize for the future.

In the last year, the Miss-Lou has shown great promise in this regard through the strengthening of economic development teams coupled with other regionalism efforts.

State leaders on both sides of the river say the area has more going for it than it has in a decade or more.

Now we need to turn that promise into action and creative solutions to living healthily within our newly svelte population and planning for a day and a way when we can grow again.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.

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