James Biglane named 2013 Citizen of the Year

Published 12:01 am Sunday, February 24, 2013

Those close to James Biglane say that when he helped charter the First Natchez Bank in 1973 he was trying to fill a need in the market that wasn’t being met.

But that move had a ripple effect throughout the Miss-Lou, and Biglane has continued through the years to work behind the scenes of many community projects, never seeking attention and at times actively eschewing it.

Submitted photo / The Natchez Democrat — James Biglane’s countless contributions to Natchez and the surrounding community without seeking accolades or personal gain over the last four decades make him The Natchez Democrat’s 2013 Citizen of the Year.

Submitted photo / The Natchez Democrat — James Biglane’s countless contributions to Natchez and the surrounding community without seeking accolades or personal gain over the last four decades make him The Natchez Democrat’s 2013 Citizen of the Year.

He was — and is — an essential cog in making the Natchez Inc. economic development machine work, he helped launch the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race and invested in historic Natchez properties at a time when others had little interest.

Email newsletter signup

The bank that he founded — now United Mississippi Bank — has grown from a handful of employees to a staff of 117. The balloon race has become what Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller calls, “one of the premier events” in Mississippi. And Natchez Inc. has recruited an anticipated 1,000-plus jobs to the area.

Biglane’s decades of contributions to the community, which have been done without seeking accolades and with the good of Natchez rather than personal gain in mind, make him The Natchez Democrat’s 2013 Citizen of the Year.

United Mississippi Bank

In a way, it all goes back to banking.

After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in petroleum management, Biglane served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict from 1964-1966. In 1967, he returned to his native Natchez and became an oilman, taking a position at the Biglane Operating Company, where he would serve as vice-president, president and general manager.

But in the early 1970s, Biglane noticed a gap in banking offerings in Natchez, and decided he needed to fill that space. Working with several others, he chartered the First Natchez Bank; long-time friend and UMB board member H.I. “Cappy” Stahlman said that of the original group, Biglane was the “stem-winder” who made the project happen.

UMB President Sammy Porter said the drive to found the bank was to meet the needs of members of the community who did not at that time have access to banking. That need was addressed in part by offering the lowest banking fees available in town at that time and pioneering Saturday banking.

“In a town that already had banks, James kind of had to find a niche, and the main thing was to make financial services available for everyone in this community,” Porter said. “It felt like the community had been underserved, and we feel like we have done a good job of filling that niche.”

Not long after the bank was chartered, the position of bank president came unexpectedly open.

“James stepped in just to temporarily fill the position and fell in love with banking, and has been there ever since,” Stahlman said. “He has been a mover and a shaker in Mississippi banking ever since.”

During the summers of 1974, 1975 and 1976, Biglane studied at the Louisiana State University School of Banking, and in May 1974, he was appointed to the Mississippi State Banking Board, serving as chairman from February 1976 to March 1994. He was reappointed to the board in 2000 and served until 2005.

UMB was also the first bank in Mississippi to have minority representation on its board, Porter said, something that continues to this day.

Even now, Biglane plays a significant role in UMB’s day-to-day operations. Porter said Biglane is his mentor, and everything he learned about banking he learned from the UMB founder.

“He has basically been at the helm and is still back there as the owner and vice chairman, and he is here on a daily basis and is still available for direction and often gives it,” Porter said.

“He keeps his finger on the pulse of the bank, and even though I am the chief executive officer and president, he still has daily involvement.”

UMB now has five branches in Natchez, two locations in Woodville and branches in Fayette, Centreville, Melville, La., and Vidalia.

Historic reappropriation

As the bank grew, it began to extend fingers of influence into other areas beyond financial services.

When First Natchez Bank was chartered, it opened in a trailer on Pearl Street, but when the bank opened its Commerce Street location, it helped spark interest in downtown Natchez, Miller said.

“James took a building that had been a bakery, and turned it into the downtown branch of UMB, so he was a pioneer in the downtown area in taking a historic building and taking it for another use,” she said.

That same willingness to reappropriate historic properties for new but respectful uses also extended to Natchez Under-the-Hill, where Biglane even lived for a time in an apartment above a shop on Silver Street.

“Almost all of the buildings that have been restored Under-the-Hill, with the exception of Under-the-Hill Saloon, James was in charge of their restoration,” Stahlman said. “His daddy always said Natchez came from Under-the-Hill and that it would return to Under-the-Hill, and when Lady Luck came, Natchez did return to the river.”

Miller said her husband — Ron Miller — worked closely with Biglane as he restored properties Under-the-Hill.

“When they started down there, there were still chickens on the street,” Miller said. “The only things down there were a Coke machine and a NAB cracker machine.”

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race

Every year on the third weekend in October, the Natchez and Vidalia skylines are dotted with colorful orbs of fabric, each filled with hot air, hauling baskets full of ballooning enthusiasts and an occasional excitable first-time rider. Traffic along U.S. 84 and the area’s side streets often stops as drivers watch hot-air balloons take to the skies, and festival grounds on both sides of the Mississippi River are filled with residents and visitors alike. Sales tax numbers jump up that weekend, Miller said, “And I can only think of one reason for that jump — the balloon race.”

The race has its roots in Biglane’s own enthusiasm for flying. Porter has served as a member of a chase crew — the team that follows a balloonist from the ground — for Biglane since Biglane first started flying.

“When he came home with his balloon license, he had a brand new balloon he had no idea how to fly, and I was chasing him all over the country trying to catch him,” Porter said.

But eventually he did learn how to fly the balloon, and what is now a given annual event started out as a casual idea in conversation one day.

“We had been to a balloon race in Arkansas in a very small town up there,” Stahlman said. “We had a very good time, but it was a small town, and afterward we were talking with (former Monmouth owner) Ron Riches, wondering why we couldn’t do anything like that down here.”

Biglane approached HNF about working to get a race going, Miller said, but he was ultimately the one who made it work. With less than two months lead time, the first balloon race was organized.

“(HNF) could have spearheaded the race all we wanted, but it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” she said. “James offered for the bank to sponsor it. It was James’s personal love of ballooning and his desire to do something for Natchez that made the balloon race what it is, and the bank continues to be a major sponsor of it.”

And Biglane wasn’t just the force that helped the event lift off; he was the first pilot to ever fly in the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

“We had the first balloon race behind the Natchez Mall. It was so windy that I am sure if the Federal Aviation Administration had been there we would not have seen a balloon go up,” Miller said. “Most people in Natchez had never seen a hot-air balloon up close, and James could not stand to disappoint the crowd. He took off, and the basket just went sideways.”

Only one other pilot flew that first weekend.

These days, Biglane and Stahlman have stepped down from the balloon race committee, but Stahlman said he sees a lasting legacy in the operations of the race.

“The balloon race is running quite well without us, and that was to me the key of the success, that when the original people are gone it still runs well,” he said.

Natchez Inc.

The balloon race is a significant singular moment of economic and cultural impact for the area, but Biglane’s work with Natchez Inc. could ultimately leave a much more lasting legacy.

At the end of the last decade, local officials realized that the economic development model that was in place wasn’t working. What they decided to try was a new initiative, a public-private partnership that would draw support from the two Adams County governments — the City of Natchez and Adams County — and a non-profit organization made up of local business people, which eventually became known as Natchez Now. The three entities funded an economic development organization, Natchez Inc., and each appointed board members to Natchez Inc.’s board of directors.

Biglane was the Adams County Board of Supervisors’ appointee at the advent of Natchez Inc. The organization’s executive director, Chandler Russ, said Biglane has been a key figure in communicating the needs and goals of the organization to the supervisors and has been a “great asset” to the board.

“He is always willing to have that dialogue with the supervisors,” Russ said. “James’ ideas in regard to both the community and the financial world have been very valuable in all those discussions.”

Natchez Inc. board member Philip West said Biglane’s connection with the community and the banking world have been invaluable to the organization’s long-term goals.

“His business experience and knowledge of history of the community — I don’t know how he remembers so much from so long ago and still knows how much everything is going on — but he is always doing things to facilitate new business,” West said.

“In terms of property, who owns it, who was on it previously and what it can be used for, he knows it all; he is like the chancery clerk’s office in one man.”

“He has this common sense, a practical financial knowledge that has protected us and helped us come up with the best approach when it comes down to us doing the kind of things we need to do as it relates to our financial situation.”

Since its inception, Natchez Inc. has recruited industrial commitments from eight companies with a projected creation of approximately 1,000 permanent jobs and $800 million investment in the community.

“James has an overall willingness to help to see that both Natchez and Adams County are successful, as well as Natchez Inc., the organization,” Russ said. “He has been definitely engaged and involved in that (success), and it has truly been refreshing to have his help throughout all these various deals we have done.”

Other involvements

Through the years, Biglane has served on the Mississippi Banker’s Association executive committee; as a member of the investment advisory board to the board of trustees of the Public Employee Retirement System; as the 1976 Santa Claus with the Santa Claus Committee; on the Alcorn State University presidential search advisory committee; on the ASU board of directors; and as a member of the budget and finance committee for the former Natchez-Adams County Economic & Community Development Authority.

Biglane also serves as the vice-chairman for the board of directors for the ASU Foundation’s executive committee. The foundation board oversees the investments the foundation makes, and board member Robert Gage said Biglane’s involvement with the foundation and his banking knowledge have always been a great help.

“Having James there with his experience and his abilities — his particular financial talents — has truly been a great asset for the foundation,” Gage said. “I can’t say enough good things about James Biglane. He has always been there when we needed him. He is a class person to work with, and he has made my job a lot easier — I hope he will continue to be a part of the banking community and a part of the ASU foundation community for years to come.”

Biglane has also had past involvement with the United Way, the Boy Scouts and the Confederate Oil Invitational Golf Tournament.

Through all of this, Biglane has not sought out public praise for the work he has done through the years, Stahlman said.

“James does not seek attention; he actually seeks to hide from it, but he is a good man who has done a whole lot for the city without regard for what it might do for himself,” Stahlman said.

James is married to Nancy Kienzle Biglane and has one son, Denton, and two grandchildren, James William Biglane and Lara Nichole Biglane.