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FOR Natchez group seeks funds, volunteers for downtown revitalization

NATCHEZ — A group seeking to revitalize downtown launched a public fundraising campaign Thursday and is seeking volunteers to spearhead the efforts.

Friends of Our Riverfront (FOR) Natchez plan for downtown is an official tricentennial legacy project and seeks to recreate the bustling downtown of Natchez’s recent history.

The group’s strategy is to establish two “anchor” zones for major attractions: the bluff area on Canal and Broadway streets and the traditionally black business district surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

FOR Natchez Chairwoman Chesney Doyle said the project aims not only to revitalize the economic center of downtown Natchez, but to reconnect the two areas that were historically separated by Jim Crow and civil rights strife.

“It was a surprise to me that we, black and white, don’t really know each other,” Doyle said. “We think we do, but we don’t. I want to credit the tricentennial for opening those doors and beginning the conversation about who we are as a community.”

Doyle’s theme for the Thursday morning meeting at Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was “celebrate and delegate.”

The fundraising efforts were split into two phases, Doyle said. The first phase of fundraising was the “quiet phase,” done by the group’s leadership in private, This phase was intended to raise at least 40 percent of the overall goal before launching the group’s public efforts.

“I’m thrilled to say this morning that we have exceeded our 40-percent goals,” Doyle said Thursday. “And we have not even begun to ask the community at large.”

Doyle said FOR Natchez’s next steps required additional leadership. The group is looking for volunteers for at least three team captains, which will be a captain for the downtown bluff area, one for the Martin Luther King Jr. triangle area, and one team captain for everything in between.

“That really represents the outline of our plan,” Doyle said.

Team captains would be responsible for engaging the community in a grassroots initiative for fundraising to get the project off the ground. Doyle said a good candidate would be someone who could serve as a cheerleader for his or her neighborhood.

“Volunteer your friends,” Doyle said. “I’m sure they won’t mind.”

The initiative would need $100,000 to engage the Walker Collaborative, an urban planning firm led by former Natchez City Planner Phil Walker, to create the master plan for downtown Natchez. Approximately $50,000 has already been donated to the cause, Doyle said.

“It’s a six-to-eight-month process if we can engage them early in 2016,” Doyle said. “Then, it will be completed and will be rolled out in (the) tricentennial year. And that is the goal.”

The project’s revitalization of the MLK and St. Catherine neighborhood would tap into the ignored black sector of the tourism industry, FOR Natchez Co-chair Darryl Grennell said

“We don’t need professional urban planners to tell us that bustling downtown will be good for our city,” Grennell said. “What we need from them is a roadmap.”

Grennell said his vision for downtown includes a mixture of thriving residential and business areas.

“We have a treasure,” Grennell said. “And we want the world to see our treasure, so we need to go in and polish it.”

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith, one of the Natchez Board of Aldermen’s liaisons to the project, attended Thursday’s meeting.

Aldermen signed a non-binding letter of intent Oct. 21 to support the plan for downtown Natchez once it was presented to the board.

The board would be in support of additional tax incentives and zoning changes if necessary, Smith said.

Executive Director of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture Darrell White said the Natchez Trails project at St. Catherine Street was at the heart of the east anchor of the FOR Natchez strategy.

He described how the street leads from the Forks of the Road, the site of the large, bustling Natchez slave market prior to the Civil War, to the Zion Chapel, whose former pastor, Hiram Rhodes Revels, became the first black congressman in the country. The street passes by the houses of civil rights leaders and historic figures of black history along the way.

“So you go from slavery to U.S. Senate, in five-eighths of a mile,” White said. “No other street in this nation can claim that.”

Smith described the St. Catherine Street Trails project as crucial to the city and FOR project.

“We’re committed to funding and doing the trails, no matter what,” Smith said.

For Doyle, the economic and historic revitalization of downtown Natchez is about celebrating the past, while looking to the future.

“It’s not just about where we’ve been, it’s about where we’re going to go,” Doyle said.