Aldermen want business group to recruit retailers

Published 12:03 am Tuesday, June 9, 2015

NATCHEZ — If Natchez is to pursue retail development and redevelopment, it’s going to need a directed, well-funded plan to make that happen.

That was the message members of Natchez Now and Natchez Inc. boards took to the city’s board of aldermen during a special meeting Monday.

Natchez NOW is the private sector group that contributes funding to Natchez Inc. in partnership with the city and county governments.

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The meeting, attended by approximately 35 people associated with Natchez Now and Natchez Inc., was called at the request of Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who said she had some concerns about Natchez Inc. and Natchez Now’s commitment to developing retail in Natchez.

“My problem is that the mall is in Ward 1, and guess where Main Street is?” Mathis said before speaking about the closure of the former SEARS store in Tracetown. “When every time I drive out there and see that piece of concrete, I certainly would not like to see that same concrete slab on John R. Junkin where that mall is.”

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said when Natchez Inc. was formed one of the main impetuses behind it was to stop population loss.

“Our total budget is $420,000 on an annual basis and it is designed to focus on those specific areas, to improve jobs and investment and everything for that, and right now that budget is strapped,” Russ said.

“It is not in any shape or form saying that what you have mentioned is not of the most utmost importance — it is of extreme value to our members, to the city county and everybody involved — that we have a healthy, vibrant retail community. Our purpose in the big macroeconomics of the deal is to improve the business climate of the area so we can do that.”

Natchez Inc. has worked to improve that climate by offering the entrepreneur’s academy and through the Possibilities Tour, which showcases downtown retail spaces, Russ said.

The entrepreneur’s academy — which teaches business management skills to aspiring entrepreneurs — has had 70 graduates, and six of the 11 properties showcased in the 2014 Possibilities Tour have been filled, he said.

Other items include hosting Natchez Day at the state capitol and current efforts to have Adams County be certified as work ready through the ACT Corp., Russ said.

But Russ said key to bringing new retail in is stemming the outflow of population from the area.

“We have got to see and improve population growth — it is probably the key statistic that is hurting us in the recruitment of retail in general,” he said.

“I think we have done fairly well on new jobs and investment in our area.”

Since 2011, Natchez Inc. has seen more than $500 million worth of new investment or construction and has recruited 560 new manufacturing jobs, as well as getting $9 million in grants for infrastructure, Russ said.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said industrial recruitment has been good, the city has seen 600 new jobs during that time.

“Those are good jobs, too,” Brown said. “They don’t pay the $60,000 to $80,000 numbers that are reported. They do pay the $18,000 to $20,000 that serve as a second income for people to move on up.”

Alderman Dan Dillard said he wants to get across to the community that the board considers hotels and motels, the medical community, restaurants and retail as industry.

“Smokestacks come in different forms,” Dillard said. “Higher education is a smokestack.”

Dillard noted Natchez Inc. has not filled former Projects Manager Chris Hinson’s position since he left it in 2013.

“I think (retail or industrial development) can be characterized as a chicken or the egg thing, and you grab whichever one you get first,” he said.

“All I am asking is that there be a person within that organization that can take on those responsibilities to look at how we can develop our retail markets.”

Dillard said the area needs an organized effort to cultivate those markets.

“We have got to go from the point where we stop gathering fruit off the ground and you start cultivating these things,” he said.

Russ said his board and the Natchez Now board have directed him “in a very significant way” to fill the position.

Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith said economies have multiple facets that all have to work together.

“The base of what you have to remember is that retail doesn’t drive industry, industry drives retail,” she said.

“There are things opening up because of the new jobs and industry that has come here, and then I think that will be driven by the economic impact that we have with more (tour) boats coming here. They are all interrelated.”

Russ said he believes if the city, Natchez Inc. and others are going to work on retail development, it needs to be done in an “organized, precise way.”

“We could go to the city, county, Natchez Now and retail community to begin to fund the plan, to discuss a strategy for future development,” Russ said.

“I do not think it needs to be limited to downtown, it needs to cover all your retail pockets throughout the city.”

Natchez Now Vice Chairman Jack Stephens said the organization has invited Mathis to attend its next meeting and to bring a retail expert with her so the members can talk about what plan can be developed.

“Once we determine which way we want to run, we can put a price tag on it and pursue it effectively,” Stephens said.

The city board did not take any action during the meeting.