Local leaders celebrate opening of Natchez Trails

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 5, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Royal Trey Hill walks past a display at the beginning of the Natchez Trails near the Natchez Bluff Saturday morning. Phase one of the trail is nearly completed and a ribbon cutting ceremony took place to honor those who donated to the project.

NATCHEZ — A group of proud Natchezians stopped walking on the new Natchez Trails Saturday and simply stood for a bit.

The group of community members and project organizers were celebrating more than six years of work with an official ribbon cutting at the start of the Natchez Trails Project.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Contributors to the Natchez Trails project celebrate after Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton, center, cut the ribbon to celebrate to opening of the Natchez Trails Saturday afternoon near the Natchez Bluff.

“I’m really pleased with the turnout,” City Engineer David Gardner said. “I couldn’t be happier.”

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The trails begin at the bluff and wrap through the downtown area.

Four trails with color-coded names help guide walkers; the north downtown trail will be red, the south downtown trail will be blue, the bluff trail will be yellow and the nature trail will be green.

Work on the project began in 2004, and through the years, Gardner said, the community didn’t lose interest.

“(The idea) came from the Community Alliance, who said we needed a large-scale project that would be of use to all of the community,” he said. “Enthusiasm spread quickly.”

The Community Alliance raised nearly $400,000 to help fund the trails, but numerous others also helped with the expenses, Gardner said.

“This was made possible through public and private donors,” Mayor Jake Middleton said. “And that’s the way it should be.

“It’s a great feeling for me as mayor to watch (the project) come to fruition, and it’s a job well done.”

Trail panels providing historical information were placed at key points on the trails, and historic panel committee member Ser Sesh ab-Heter C.M. Boxley said he pushed for the inclusion of black history in relation to slavery, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A Natchez Public Works employee, below, removes chairs from the gazebo on Broadway Street Saturday morning, after a ribbon cutting that took place to celebrate the opening of the Natchez Trails.

“I don’t think there was an issue of opposition (to including black history), but there was a need for steady pushing,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the product, and I think now Natchez is a sort of vanguard example to the nation.”

Former Natchez Mayor Larry L. “Butch” Brown spoke at the ceremony as the keynote speaker and pointed out that tourism is Natchez’s primary industry.

“(These trails) enhance the quality of life (in Natchez) and economic development,” he said. “This is the kind of project that can’t be paid for or sponsored by one group — it’s a combination of everyone (working together).”

Gardner said there’s still work to do with phase I of the project, such as constructing wooden steps to connect parts of the trails, but it’s about 95 percent complete. Since Saturday marked National Trails Day, the ceremony continued as planned, he said.

Costs for phase I of the project have totaled about $1.8 million so far, and further costs should total another $800,000, Gardner said. Costs include professional fees, architectural fees and basic materials.

Greg Eby, who works for trails sponsor Delta Bank, said he moved to Vidalia about three months ago, and he thinks the trails project successfully helps people get to know Natchez better and appreciate its history.

“It’s great for newcomers to get to know the area and the history,” he said.

At the end of the ceremony, members of the community presented Gardner — who many regard as the project’s leader — with a bench made in his honor to be placed on the trails.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

“This was a wonderful event,” he said.