Natchez is letting mission creep get in way of progress

Published 12:01 am Sunday, August 26, 2018

The City of Natchez is beginning to have mission creep at a time when we need singular focus on the city’s biggest problem — a shrinking population.

If you aren’t familiar with the term mission creep, the first instance I recall hearing it was when President George H.W. Bush used it to explain why he did not want to conquer Baghdad, Iraq, during the first Gulf War. The mission, he said, was to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Going further would be mission creep.

City leaders started showing signs of the tendency last week when they heard from three consultant groups aimed at growing retail business in the city.

On the surface that seems great. More retail options, the better, correct?

But the move may be mission creep starting to veer the city’s focus off course.

To get more retail to Natchez, the problem isn’t our approach or strategy; it’s not our ignorance on the types of businesses we need here; it’s our population.

Let’s be logical for a minute.

What retail business would want to locate in a community with a population that is on the decline and whose leadership seemingly has no clear focus to stop the decline?

For a business to create a plan that would work here, some calculus would be required to figure out if the level of potential customers will be sufficient over the next three, five or 10 years to support the business.

Imagine our area as a large bucket of sand, with each grain of sand representing a person who lives here. A business has to analyze that sand, understand the buying habits and trends. Calculate the average earnings of those grains of sand.

That’s a routine part of business analysis. But when the bucket has a small hole at the bottom and grains of sand are being lost each year, the math just gets more complicated.

But new retail business would create jobs, supporters say. So those jobs would pay taxes and help grow the local economy.

That’s true, but only if the retail business captures new money. If the new business simply cannibalizes another local business, the net gain is likely to zero out over time. Look at the casino business in Natchez. Not long after the new Magnolia Bluffs Casino opened, the drain of customers off the old Isle of Capri eventually caused it to close.

The same could occur with many additional types of retail business, unless the kind of business is truly underserved in the community.

The 2000 Census showed the City of Natchez has a population of 18,464. Ten years later the city had shrunk to approximately 15,792 the census count showed.

The 2017 estimate suggests that number is now down to an estimated 14,886, or more than 3,500 residents down in 17 years.

That’s an alarming rate. Nearly 2 out of every 10 residents from 2000 have gone somewhere else. Some have obviously moved out of the city, but remained in the county or in the region, but not all of them. Adams County’s population has declined by nearly as much. That declining population — not trying to woo a Waffle House to town — should be the single focus of our community. We need to take a rife like approach to working on this problem.

It’s a crisis that can be overcome, but like survival experts teach, we must work fast and work smart and work together.

We need our leaders and our citizens to realize that our city and county governments need to be smaller.

Squeezing every ounce of efficiency through eliminating spending that isn’t absolutely necessary and merging together services where savings can be gained must be done.

In survival mode, think of the city money as precious water that must be carefully rationed, the supply protected.

Merging resources makes sense and needs to be done for the good of all.

We also must make Natchez a more attractive place to live and operate a business. That means everything from cleaning up the area and improving the quality of life to following through with plans and working together not apart.

After years and years of discussion, we still have empty public buildings all over, old, outdated recreational facilities and a police force that cannot seem to pay enough to attract and maintain the best and brightest. We also have some of the highest paid, part-time aldermen in the state, or did the last time I checked.

The only way to eliminate mission creep is for citizens to say, “enough,” and begin making change happen by focusing like a laser on the real problems.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.