Natchez needs your imagination

Published 12:06 am Friday, November 7, 2014

Wouldn’t it be great if downtown Natchez could return to the days when the streets were packed with cars and customers filled the aisles of Ullman’s, H.F. Byrne and Coles department stores?

When I came to Natchez, the department stores had already closed their doors. Customers had already left much of downtown for the mall and big box stores on the bypass.

Today, vacant buildings dot the downtown streets.

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Downtown isn’t desolate. The tourism industry still keeps two downtown hotels, local restaurants and gift shops busy. Surrounding neighborhoods, local government buildings and offices do their part.

Even still, many empty buildings remain.

The folks at Natchez Inc., the Natchez Board of Realtors and Alcorn State want you to envision a different kind of Natchez.

They want you to visualize a downtown once again filled with activity and they have 11 properties you can visit let your imagination soar 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday.

There will be guided tours, displays from local artists and craftsmen and chances to win a few prizes at each building scattered throughout downtown.

You don’t have to look very far to find people who are already creating their own vision for empty buildings in and around downtown Natchez.

Charles Watzke is one such person. Watzke is from the coast and hopes to spend the first part of next year bringing the Ritz Theater back to life.

Watzke wants to turn the Ritz back into a theatre, but he doesn’t want to turn back the clock. He wants to create a new theater experience suited to today’s movie-going crowd. He wants to build an outdoor courtyard  dinner theater and add amenities, like a cocktail lounge and upscale candy counter.

He has recently had success restoring an old drive-in theater in Florida and hopes to do the same for Waveland’s historic Choctaw Cinema that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Brownstone Group wants to buy the old Margaret Martin School from the city and turn it into apartments, something the developer had successfully done in Vicksburg. Completed this year, both the Aeolian Senior Apartments and Carr Central School Apartment are examples of old vacant buildings that have been given new life.

The Aeolian, which had been vacant since 1991, now offers downtown living for seniors with amenities that include a theater, a salon, a library and business and conference center.

The Brownstone Group wants to do the same with Margaret Martin, instead of letting it continue to decline.

Dub Rogers also has a vision for Smoots Grocery on the corner of Broadway and High streets. He has already turned one building into his popular Steampunk espresso bar.

Add to Rogers’ ventures the vision others local community leaders have for the now-empty beer distributorship on Broadway Street and the potential to create an entertainment district along the bluff looks promising.

You, too, can hone your vision for Natchez by coming out and seeing the great potential there is in downtown. Imagine the possibilities.


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