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Officials looking to fill empty industrial, commercial spaces

NATCHEZ — Shrinking census numbers may not be easily noticed by the number of people walking down Main Street, but a list of abandoned properties and vacant storefronts may drive the point home.

Natchez-Adams County’s new economic engine, Natchez Inc., has made attempts to market available space to open shop, the group’s Executive Director Chandler Russ said, but complications exist since many abandoned properties are privately owned or leased and outdated.

Manufacturing

The Titan Tire and Johns Manville facilities are still owned by the companies that formerly churned out rubber and insulation products at the sites, respectively, but both properties sit in limbo.

“We’re actively marketing (Titan Tire and Johns Manville) — the parts of them that are usable,” Russ said.

Titan Tire continues to lease its site from the city, even though the industry closed its Natchez doors in 2001.

Site manager of the Kelly Avenue facility, Kenneth Young, said in January the company had been clearing out of some of the equipment, but he is not aware of any plans for changes.

The facility has full-time security and a maintenance staff, Young said.

Corporate representatives could not be reached by press time.

Robin Hervig, company spokesperson for Johns Manville, which owns a facility on Liberty Road, said the plant is available for sale.

“We are currently working with economic development in Natchez to discuss future plans,” Hervig said. “We don’t have any plans for it now, but were looking at a variety of options. One would be possibly leasing or selling facility. We have someone going down within the next week to do appraisals of building, look at the value of it and make plans to sell the property to an interested party.”

Hervig said a full-time caretaker, the former plant manager, is on site helping maintain and upkeep the facility while reviewing plans for the future of the site.

Russ said Johns Manville’s warehouse facilities, which were the most recent addition to the facility, are more marketable than the rest of the facility because the warehouse does not face the ceiling height and environmental limitations.

“We’ve had several clients look at that facility in particular,” he said.

Russ said city is advertising the facilities on several site-selection databases in hopes that a prospective industry might nibble at them for a future industry site.

Since the industrial world has changed in the decade since those facilities were built, reusing those sites is not as easy as simply moving in and starting production, Russ said.

“Uses for manufacturing are very hard to accommodate, whether its ceiling heights or environmental issues,” Russ said. “The long-short of it is those properties from a functional sale value are very limited in what can go out there and be used.”

Natchez City Planner Bob Nix said it would be ideal if a new company or individual came in to rehabilitate and clean up the old facilities for new industry but that work can get expensive.

Nix said if the sites happen to be contaminated or polluted enough to qualify them as a “brownfield site,” grants are available through the Environmental Protection Agency to fund their rehabilitation if there is an intention to reuse them.

Russ pointed out that Natchez and Adams County do not have a corner on the market of abandoned manufacturing space.

Russ said Natchez Inc. will look at options for new industries and explore the cost benefit of demolishing the properties versus keeping them in place.

He said it is important to note that the site managers at Titan Tire and Johns Manville are maintaining the properties and providing security and that both sites are still generating tax revenue.

Shopping centers

Magnolia Mall and the Tracetown Shopping Center, both which sit in areas with high traffic and plenty of exposure, have multiple empty storefronts.

Tracetown Shopping Center’s property manager, Ted Autterson, said a decision has been made to do some work at the site in hopes of attracting more businesses.

“The owners (JW Properties Inc.) have made the decision to demolish the Sears complex and old cinema building because they are functionally obsolete,” Autterson said. “That building is old, and it would cost more to retrofit it for current use versus knocking it down. I think it will create a lot of excitement, and more importantly open up a tremendous opportunity to bring someone there to anchor where the Sears building was.”

Autterson said demolishing the buildings will allow a better vision as to how much property is there and create awareness of it.

“It’s a great spot that can be marketed,” Autterson said. “We are aggressively seeking an anchor, but we hope it opens an opportunity for anyone who knows of a use, or has a use, to see potential. We have good relationship with the city and this is something I wanted to get done, but it was not an overnight decision. It’s an expensive proposition.”

Audtterson said site owners are taking the Sears building down to the slab, and completely removing the slab from the cinema building because of a sloping floor.

“We will level it and tie it into the open field next door so we can really see what we have,” Autterson said. “We welcome any assistance, like help with ideas to find out what Natchez really needs in that spot. It becomes a community effort. It’s big news.”

Autterson said the buildings will soon be stripped inside, in an approximate 30-day process before structures start coming down.

Russ said he has discussed financing options, such as tax-increment financing, to help boost business, with the shopping center managers.

Magnolia Mall’s building owner, Robert Jeansonne, said he wants to attract new, established businesses but expects the economic atmosphere is affecting the interest level.

“We do have several empty buildings, and we’re running ads on the Internet and on the buildings,” Jeansonne said.

Jeansonne, who is based in Denham Springs, La., and visits Natchez weekly, said he has been getting mostly inquiries from small independent people who want to start a business for the first time, and that is not the market he wants to reach for Magnolia Mall.

“I’m looking for someone that has a track record,” Jeansonne said.

He said because of the large size of much of the available space, he wants well-established businesses that can afford to rent the available area.

“We’d love to get another grocery store back in there,” Jeansonne said.

He said the former Walmart space has potential to be used by a storage company or heavy equipment facility.

Jeansonne said he receives inquiries about the space approximately once a week, but they are often not the established businesses he has in mind for the available space.

Signs currently outside the mall advertising a new owner need to be removed, he said, since the sale fell through.

Jeansonne said he has hopes that he will attract new businesses to the mall soon.

“I’m hoping somebody calls me Monday; the price is negotiable,” he said.

He said those interested in leasing the buildings should call his office at 225-664-3617.

“Most of those are high-value, high-traffic commercial properties, and it’s a benefit to both the city and county to have them functioning at a high level,” Russ said.

“If we can help entice those owners to make additional investments into those properties that can yield a return for city and county, then we definitely will explore those options, he said.

Environmental

The space occupied in the early 2000s by the horticultural business Stewart Orchids was purchased two years ago by a local family who owned the adjacent property.

Wayne Johnson bought the vacant nursery facility on Industrial Park Road near the airport after it was for sale for five or six years.

“Right now we’re using it for storage, for my tractors and equipment,” said Johnson, who is involved in the horse industry.

He said he plans to put a roof on the facility and use it for barns and eventually take down the greenhouses and sell the structure.

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