A bigger vision for the Natchez Bluff
Published 12:05 am Friday, December 26, 2014
The land fronting on the bluff and Broadway Street, from the depot to Madison Street, is the most significant tract of undeveloped land in Natchez.
Not the most valuable, because of significant issues of soil stability (which impacts the density of improvements), but the most significant in terms of impact on downtown and the city itself. The development and management of this site will help define downtown Natchez for the balance of this century.
This pecan-factory tract comprising the north portion of this prime river-view land should remain owned by the public and be accessible to everyone. Adding the Callon tract (the parking area and just north) would complete a trifecta extending from the depot to Madison Street.
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The discussion is timely, because the city is considering a deal to sell the pecan-factory site to Alcorn State University for a farmer’s market and product development facility and kitchen. A recent editorial in The Democrat is correct in its appeal to city leaders and the public to scrutinize this proposed transaction. Selling this land to a third party (because of a grant or otherwise) would be a tragic mistake.
Why? First, because this land should remain in the public trust. Together with the Rosalie land, it is the only remaining undeveloped downtown bluff-front land. This land connects downtown to the river. It is the essence of a public space. Second, because the potential for this land is far greater than the use proposed by Alcorn.
What is that potential? A gathering place for citizens and tourists. A focal point for the revival of downtown. A revenue stream for the city. A picturesque, tree-filled park. A venue for festivals, special events, and yes, a farmer’s market. A public space that could become a new, defining landmark for Natchez.
Pollyannaville? No. It has already been done elsewhere. The best example I have is my own former hometown, Fredericksburg, Texas. Fredericksburg is similar to Natchez. Small town (smaller than Natchez.) Preserved architecture (German.) Pretty setting (Texas Hill Country.) Dependent on tourism (Fredericksburg hosts twice as many tourists annually as Natchez, roughly 1.3 million versus 650,000.) There are differences. Fredericksburg is a day trip for a population base greater than the population of the entire state of Mississippi. Fredericksburg is booming, with virtually no vacant retail space downtown, 500 bed and breakfast units, 25 wineries, and festivals and events almost every weekend. Natchez has a deeper, richer history, with more magnificent architecture. Natchez has the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez is more scenic. Natchez people are friendlier.
Fredericksburg’s hub is a square patch of public land (under five acres) called Marketplatz. Marketplatz has trees (a winter wonderland at Christmastime, all aglow,) walkways, benches, fountains, landscaping, a central, historic building (the octagonal Vereins Kirche, the town’s first church and school,) and three open-air pavilions. It is the west anchor of the retail district. Well designed, aesthetically pleasing, and multi-purpose. The pavilions on any given weekend are concert halls, farmer’s markets, vendor-booth areas, wedding venues, and family-gathering places. Marketplatz is a people place. It is ground zero for the town’s festivals. Its relatively small size belies its significance and impact. The city realizes revenue from various events — events that grow in number every year as success breeds success.
The bluff land could be a southern version of Marketplatz, the west anchor for Natchez’s retail and entertainment district. Properly planned and developed, it could be a catalyst for the revival of downtown.
If the Callon tract could be acquired (the site of a future “Callon Pavilion”?) the entire bluff (depot to Madison) could be one incredible town square. The purpose underlying the original grant to the city in the early 1800s would be achieved. That grant mandated public ownership and development only as a park. Open-air pavilions would be the only large structures in the plan outlined above. The weight load would be minimal.
A farmer’s market is a good idea. But that’s a seasonal and transitory use, easily accommodated within a bigger vision that is aesthetic, compliments our history and architecture, is sensitive to the fragility of the bluff and serves many purposes. A vision equal to the stature of the site.
James Wallace is an attorney, land broker and writer whose family roots in the Natchez area date to the early 1800s.