Officials say downtown Natchez needs planning, organization

Published 12:35 am Sunday, July 17, 2016

NATCHEZ — Natchez’s downtown has attracted new businesses in recent years, but some are making moves to make the redevelopment of the historic business district a little more even and focused.

“Our downtown is very, very important to the city, because it is one of the major magnets that can drive people into the city for tourism, and I get a lot of compliments from people who say, ‘You have a nice downtown,’ but we need to get it enhanced to realize its full potential,” Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said.

The mayor said he has spoken to some of the aldermen about it and hopes to propose to the full board the creation of a city office to that, when filled, will serve as a point person for downtown revitalization.

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“We definitely need — from the city’s perspective and with the board’s permission — a downtown development director, a person who can play a major role in downtown development,” he said.

“That person will go down and get all the businesses and all the residents who are a part of downtown organized, get them on board and start developing programs to enhance downtown. We need to get things back in place where they can meet and brainstorm.”

While the government can’t redevelop or move properties on the market, Grennell said the city could help foster partnerships and policies to encourage growth.

“You have got to have a downtown development organization in order to get that stuff moving forward, getting synergies and partnerships, and organizing events that will drive people downtown,” he said.

What happened to the former downtown development association?

For many years, the city had the Natchez Downtown Development Association, a non-profit organization with the goal of preservation of the historic downtown district by working in partnership with local businesses to promote Natchez and encourage locals and tourists to patronize downtown businesses.

It also served as the vehicle through which Natchez was certified as a Mississippi Main Street Community, though the city hasn’t had that designation since 2009 when the city board cut the $25,000 dedicated to the NDDA that helped pay its director.

One of the requirements to be a Mississippi Main Street member is a full time director.

Mississippi Main Street helps do many of the things Grennell has proposed, including organizing and establishing consensus amongst stakeholders, promotion and planning.

The NDDA still exists, though treasurer Scott Christian said this summer it may be “on its last breath,” though he would love to see it revamped. The organization has been keeping its membership with the Mississippi Main Street Association active, but Christian said he didn’t write the $2,000 membership check for 2016.

“Once the city pulled the funding and we lost the full-time director, it has been a band-aid trying to keep it together,” he said. “Marbeth Schon was the president and keeping it going, and with her passing away that sort of left Daphne Taylor and me in charge, and between the two of us we never could pull a board meeting together.”

At this point, the best thing would be for the board to be rebuilt from scratch, Christian said, but those involved have gotten to the point where they don’t have the time to do it anymore.

“With a volunteer board, you get people with different levels of time, and after a couple of years, people get tired,” he said.

Potential partnerships

If the downtown development director position is approved, two of the organizations the director would partner with are FOR Natchez and Natchez Inc., Grennell said.

FOR Natchez is a non-profit looking to redevelop the historic district through strategic revitalization. The city aldermen voted last year to endorse and make non-monetary city resources available to the group, which is raising money to develop a master plan for downtown.

“You can’t do anything without a plan — you can’t get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ without a plan, you can’t get grant money without a plan and you can’t develop a downtown without a plan,” FOR Natchez President Chesney Doyle said.

“We need to perk up what we have in Natchez, the building designs we have in Natchez are unique and fragile, especially when it comes to the buildings that represent our 19th century and early 20th century black businesses. To have the physical evidence of that period intact in the form of these buildings is a precious asset we have that many cities don’t.

“The recent collapse of the Palace building just highlights the urgency of what we are doing — what we have is very precious, and we don’t need to watch it just fall down.”

FOR Natchez has raised approximately $70,000 of the needed $100,000 to engage the planning firm The Walker Collaborative to develop the plan, which will focus on downtown between two anchor areas, the Natchez bluff and the Martin Luther King Jr. Street triangle area.

“It’s going to look at what is our retail potential, what is our housing market potential, what is our economic potential for restoring historic buildings that are dilapidated, and what is the highest and best use of certain areas,” Doyle said.

“This is a plan that involves the input of the stakeholders, the people who live along the streets, the neighborhoods, the merchants and the community at large. This is not something that is cut in a back room.

“And $20,000 of this plan is a housing market analysis for downtown and a retail market analysis. It is not some artists’ vision of what downtown could look like, it is an actual, economically based plan looking at the reality of our situation.”

Doyle said when one looks at other cities where similar plans have been developed and implemented, community investment takes off.

“People start fixing up their properties, because they feel like, ‘Finally, we have a plan,’” she said.

Natchez Inc. — which focuses largely on industrial development — has taken an interest in promoting empty spaces in downtown in recent years, working with Realtors to host a downtown-wide open house of available storefronts marketed as the Possibilities Tour. The two main drags through downtown, Main and Franklin streets, have 23 available spaces.

“We know that there are empty buildings spaces in our downtown, and when somebody contacts us, we can give them some suggestions of properties where they might look or get them in touch with a realtor that might have that property listed,” Natchez Inc. Communications Manager Aimee Guido said. “On a regular, consistent basis, there is somebody who might call and say, ‘I came to the possibilities tour, and there was a property, who should I get in touch with?”

Grennell said the city office could work with those organizations to not only find grants but also complement their missions.

“We used to have this great art festival every year downtown, a big festival where they would block off the streets, have artists set up booths, and it would draw lots of people — we need to get back to doing things like that, we need somebody who can find those partnerships to make those things happen,” he said.

“Government could use these (other) organizations as conduits in order to push real estate and so forth. When you begin to enhance the aesthetics and drive people in here, that is when you get people interested in purchasing property and developing and setting up a business.”