Leaders gather for discussion on how to move area forward
Published 12:13 am Wednesday, December 17, 2014
NATCHEZ — Local and state leaders gathered Tuesday to discuss what needs to happen for Natchez to continue moving forward.
Those conversations were part of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Regional Round-Up meetings, which will take MEC officials to 30 communities throughout the state discussing opportunities for those communities and regions to help grow Mississippi’s economic competitiveness.
Natchez and Adams County leaders, as well as some state officials, gathered at the Natchez Convention Center for a luncheon before sitting down to a round table discussion on what Natchez is doing right and what it can improve.
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MEC President and CEO Blake Wilson said Natchez was a perfect community to discuss the positives of its economic development efforts.
“I use Natchez as an example for many other communities; I say, ‘go talk to Natchez — they’re a community that got serious and got organized,’” said Wilson, referring to the creation of Natchez Inc., a public and private partnership that serves as the area’s economic development engine.
Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said those partnerships have led to many successes for the area.
“The business community, in partnership with the city and county, decided to retool the economic engine for the area, and we’ve had a little over half a billion worth of projects that are in progress because of that,” Russ said. “We’ve got several entities and hundreds of jobs that have been created through this.”
The discussions of what has gone well for Natchez in the past led to a natural progression of Wilson asking what was next for Natchez.
Aaron Shermer, vice president of business development for Great River Industries, sparked a conversation of a figurative glass ceiling Natchez and Adams County faces with few transportation options.
“There’s going to be a limit to the business you can attract here, because not everyone can afford to fly in on a private jet,” Shermer said. “Not everyone is going to drive a couple of hours to an airport to get here.”
Mayor Butch Brown said another mode of transportation the city is not fully tapping into yet is vessels that travel the Mississippi River.
Currently, the American Queen and Queen of the Mississippi visit Natchez and Vidalia throughout various times of the year, docking for a day before continuing their voyage on the river.
Brown said he believes more riverfront infrastructure could be put in place in Natchez to cater to those vessels and others who have expressed interested in stopping at Natchez.
“It’s difficult enough to entertain two vessels; we don’t make a lot of people happy,” Brown said. “Imagine a year and half from now in the heartbeat of the Tricentennial when we have four or six vessels and no place to park.
“This is a real problem when tourism is the No. 1 industry.”
Brown said he and other city officials would travel to Washington, D.C., in January with the goal of securing funding available to river communities to enhance infrastructure along the river.
Brown said he believes the city could easily double its tourism traffic by putting in the proper infrastructure to allow more vessels to dock in Natchez.
“We’re restricting ourselves by not having a daily cruise or docking facilities,” Brown said. “Every time we don’t have air service, a dock or other things, these are the kinds of things we’re going to have to address, and we need the support of our community.”
Russ said improvements of river infrastructure for industrial purposes also need to be a focus of local, state and federal officials going forward.
“If the state is willing to spend $600 million improving the state’s port in Gulfport, surely we should be equally committed to improving other ports on the river,” Russ said. “But for some reason, that traction is harder to pitch or get legs under that.”
Russ said Adams County is faced with a problem not uncommon throughout Mississippi.
“The Natchez-Adams County Port has done a great job, but they’re sold out, and the problem is they’re sold out,” said Russ, speaking about available property on the river that can be developed for industrial use. “If we don’t look at how to expand that river frontage and the port itself, it’s something that’s going to end up being a stumbling block.”
Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis congratulated the work done by the industrial economic development agents in the area, but also said she would like to see more emphasis put on attracting retail businesses.
“I think we’re doing really well with attracting the large businesses out at the port and those types of situations, but I’m interested in Main Street and the mall,” said Arceneaux-Mathis, who acknowledged both of those areas are in the ward she represents. “I think we could make a little more money in our retail services and have a consultant come here to find out why are people leaving and what are the leaving to buy?”
Wilson said he would be collecting and eventually sharing the ideas presented at the discussions with all the communities that participated in the events.