Flood, industrial successes top stories for 2011

Published 12:02 am Sunday, January 1, 2012

BEN HILLYER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — The top stories of 2011 in the Miss-Lou include the flooding of the Mississippi River in May, the announcement of new companies like Enersteel, the groundbreaking of a new casino on Roth Hill, concerns over crime like the murder at the Natchez Mall, the construction of the Vidalia Recreation Complex, the decreasing census and resulting redistricting efforts, the opening of the new Natchez Trails project, the trial of two Natchez police officers and the continued water woes in Ferriday.

It was a moment in time that Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland says the area survived “only through the grace of God” — a 500-year flood.

The Mississippi River rose to an unprecedented 61.9 feet at Natchez, prompting frenzied building of sandbag and Hesco-basket walls on the Vidalia and Natchez riverfronts. Residents of Concordia Parish held their breath as they watched the levee system hold back more and more water. The Vidalia riverfront was submerged. In Mississippi, Anna’s Bottom and Fort Adams became beachfront and then mid-river properties.

But the area escaped without major catastrophe. No levee failures, no flooding of the riverside buildings in Vidalia.

That was in part because the area came together for a unified flood fight, Copeland said. It included every governmental agency, the National Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, even prisoners.

“It was something that in my wildest imagination I would not have thought we would be able to accomplish,” Copeland said. “Building the Hesco basket walls, we beat the deadline by 10 hours.”

“Without that cooperation we would not have been able to survive.

Even now, months after the flood, damage assessment is ongoing. Some riverfront infrastructure is damaged, and the Vidalia convention center may have had damage to its under structure, Copeland said.

“I hope I — and the people of Vidalia and Concordia Parish — never have to experience that again,” he said.

Fruits of Natchez Inc’s labor

In the first year of its existence, Natchez Inc. impressed locals with success in attracting three major industries to town that could bring a total of more than 600 jobs by 2015.

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said he was pleased with Natchez Inc.’s progress in 2011.

“I think we’ve demonstrated to both to our allies and our statewide partners that Natchez-Adams County is a place that can compete and will compete (for economic development),” Russ said.

In June, Gov. Haley Barbour announced Elevance Renewable Science’s plans to buy the former Delta Fuels facility and open a plant in Natchez.

The Bolingbrook, Ill., based specialty chemical company pledged to add 165 permanent jobs, 300 temporary construction jobs and invest $225 million within five years.

In August, Enersteel, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Enerfab bought the former Dynasteel facilities and opened a plant near the Adams County Port in August.

The company, which specializes in manufacturing fabricated steel plate products, retained 25 Dynasteel employees and has so far added 50 jobs with a total of approximately 150 projected employees in the next year.

In September, HCL Cleantech announced plans to open one of four locations in Natchez by 2015.

The company, which turns pine into sugars that can be used to make fuel and other products, will invest $1 billion statewide and add more than 300 jobs in Natchez alone.

“I’ve got to honestly say that I’ve been impressed with the activity that has been going on this first year since the conception of Natchez Inc.,” Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said.

“We’re moving in the right direction here in Adams County.”

Leadership changes

Longtime leaders, powerful incumbents and well-known local faces said goodbye to public office in 2011.

Some made the decision on their own, others left at the will of others.

The Natchez-Adams School Board voted to terminate its eight-year relationship with Superintendent Anthony Morris. Morris appealed the decision, but ultimately moved on.

Interim Superintendent Joyce Johnson has signed on to lead the district through the remainder of this school year while a search for the new leader is ongoing.

Fall elections brought significant changes to the elected Adams County Board of Supervisors. Incumbents Henry Watts and S.E. Spanky Felter were defeated by political newcomers David Carter and Calvin Butler, respectively.

Thomas “Boo” Campbell chose not to run again. Angela Hutchins will take his seat next week.

The new board has promised a spirit of compromise and teamwork that many voters felt was lacking in recent years.

Longtime Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins left his post after a year full of woes for the police department, and Danny White has stepped into the interim role while a search is conducted.

Sen. Bob Dearing entered retirement this week, after losing the Mississippi senate seat he’s held for 30 years to Melanie Sojourner of Natchez.

Larry L. “Butch” Brown was forced from his executive position with the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Concordia Parish Sheriff Randy Maxwell announced his upcoming retirement.

And Vidalia police officer Arthur Lewis began a career as chief after winning a special election held to fill the seat vacated by Ronnie “Tapper” Hendricks when he pleaded guilty to federal charges of making false statements.

Census drop leads to redistricting woes

Census numbers released early in the year showed Adams County’s population decreased to 30,297 from 34,340 in 2000.

The county lost approximately 4,000 residents — approximately 13 percent — of its population in the last decade.

In addition to a redistricting plan for the City of Natchez devised by a private firm hired by the aldermen, the NAACP submitted an alternate redistricting plan for the city, which included a fourth minority ward.

Mayor Jake Middleton broke a 3-3 tie in October, casting his vote in favor of a redistricting plan that maintains three majority black wards and three majority white wards.

In Concordia Parish, the population decreased by 3 percent of its population in 2010 compared to the 2000 census numbers.

The census reported that there are 606 less residents in the parish than there were in 2000, bringing the number to 19,641 in 2010 down from 20,247 in 2000.

Because the Concordia Parish Police Jury did not receive approval of its redistricting plan from the U.S Department of justice in time to qualify for the November election, elections were delayed until April 2012.

Since the Town of Ferriday failed to submit its redistricting plan in time for U.S. Department of Justice approval, Ferriday aldermen elections will not be on the April ballot.

The population decrease did not effect Vidalia’s districts, and the board of aldermen adopted the 2000 plan on Nov. 8. Vidalia aldermen were able to qualify for the spring election cycle.

Concerns over crime

Natchez and Adams County saw a year of increased murders, a deputy shooting, cat killings and dangerous bar fights.

Five murders within the city limits startled residents used to an average of one or two per year.

Sheriff’s Deputy Buddy Frank sustained a gunshot wound when a bank robbery suspect shot him in the leg June 24, but Frank has since returned to work.

NPD officers on trial

Two Natchez police officers stood trial in 2011 in federal court in Natchez for civil rights violations based on allegations that Officer Elvis Prater beat a handcuffed man he had arrested in the back of a police car in May 2009.

Former Officer Dewayne Johnson was convicted by a jury of stealing credit cards belonging to the alleged victim, and Johnson later pleaded guilty to conspiring with his cousin to use the cards.

Johnson, who was fired from the police department following his conviction in March, was sentenced in September to two and a half years in federal prison.

Johnson is currently serving his sentence at a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio.

Prater was acquitted of all charges, after the conclusion of two trials.

Vidalia breaks ground

The city on the move had no intention of slowing down this year as it broke ground on the Vidalia Recreation Complex and continued construction on the municipal complex in the 83-acre former vacant lot on U.S. 84 next to Walmart.

The recreation complex is expected to open in April or May.

The Municipal Complex will house City Hall, the fire department and the police station and should be ready for move-in by March.

Casino starts work

Natchez wasn’t bluffing when it decided to go all in with the Roth Hill Road casino this year.

From approval meetings to design changes, the future Magnolia Bluffs Casino, which is expected to be complete in October, has jumped several hurdles before even starting construction.

Ground stabilization began on the site in early December.

The Natchez Preservation Commission unanimously voted to delay proposed changes to the casino presented by the developers, Premier Gaming Group, until its next meeting on Jan. 11.

Ferriday water woes

In Ferriday, the long-running saga of ups and downs associated with its water system continued.

In May, rising water associated with the floods threatened to disable the system’s intake structure on Old River.

August saw one of the water treatment plant’s clarifying filters fail, and then the other, forcing the town into a weeks-long boil-water notice. Residents were forced to get drinking water from portable water tanks that the National Guard brought to town. But a move made earlier in the year could mean hope for the future — in April, the town hired JCP Management to serve as the third-party managers of their water treatment facilities, the first step the U.S. Department of Agriculture required the town to take before it could receive a $6 million grant to build a new plant.

Natchez Trails open

In June, the long-awaited and already much-walked-on Natchez Trails Project officially opened.

Sidewalks that zigzag through downtown and wrap along the river give locals and tourists a great look at the city on the hill.

Markers along the way offer tidbits about the history of the area. More phases of construction are planned.