City leaders look at first steps toward implementation of master plan

Published 12:15 am Sunday, January 20, 2019

NATCHEZ — Now that local leaders have a master plan in hand to change the face of downtown Natchez, it is time to start implementing the plan at a quicker pace, city leaders say.So far, leaders say progress is being made, including having sold three buildings in downtown Natchez in December, advertising for a tenant to occupy the former depot building on the bluff owned by the city and working to secure funding to hire a downtown director to oversee implementation of the plan.

Despite that progress, however, local leaders said implementation is not a fast process.

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Nonprofit FOR Natchez spearheaded the effort to fundraise and turn the Natchez vision into a step-by-step guidebook that illustrates how the downtown could be refashioned into a lively, tourist hub for music, art, food, history and entertainment.

FOR Natchez Executive Director Chesney Doyle enlisted Philip Walker of The Walker Collaborative to serve as project manager in the creation the Downtown Natchez Master Plan.

“Any time you have a plan, it’s not as though you can just flip on a light switch and ‘voila’ it’s implemented,” Walker said. “It’s very incremental. … It sounds as though they’re off to a pretty good start, but (Natchez) is also an economically challenged area, so it’s not going to be easy.”

The plan focuses mostly on redeveloping the “bookends” of downtown — the bluff and the MLK triangle area — as well as the “heart” or central area surrounding the old Ritz Theater on a block of Commerce Street between Main and Franklin streets.

The plan details the needs and benefits of a central arts district, turning an existing makeshift parking lot surrounded by Martin Luther King Jr., Saint Catherine and Franklin streets into a plaza celebrating the city’s African-American heritage.

The plan also would transform an empty grassland on the North end of the bluff into a performance venue with a nearby restaurant and public restroom at the former Broadway Street train depot.

With the steps in place, Doyle said, “there are many irons in the fire,” or ideas to set this plan into motion, the hottest of which, she said, involves the Old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Depot on Broadway Street.

Below is a look at progress so far and plans for implementation of the Natchez Downtown Master Plan.

The Depot

On Dec. 31, the city began advertising for potential tenants to lease the depot.

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said that despite a March 1 deadline for proposals to be turned in he intends to request an extension of that deadline later into the month during the next aldermen meeting to allow more time to market the depot to potential business owners.

“The depot is a part of that whole development process — of igniting that energy to start moving our downtown to meet the specifications of the plan,” Grennell said. “We’re getting ready to market it. Visit Natchez gave $500 (last week) and I’m going to request another $500 from the city (Tuesday) to go ahead and get it marketed so potential developers can know that it’s available.”

Doyle said the depot offers 2,250-square-foot space in a prime location that would be perfect for a food, beverage and entertainment establishment.

The depot request for proposals lists eight requirements that interested parties must submit with their proposal, including a detailed description of their business concept, proposed lease terms, a list of names and entities involved in the proposal, a qualification and experience statement, a financial capability statement and estimated project cost, a description of employment opportunities created by the establishment, a timeline for business construction and a signed proposal form.

The RFP also has a section titled “Preferred Proposals,” which lists a best-case scenario for the new establishment, including turning the depot into a cafe-style restaurant with open hours between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a live entertainment schedule, outdoor dining experiences facing the river and an ideal 10-year lease agreement with rent being no less than $27,000 a year. 

However, the items listed there are not a requirement of the RFP, Doyle said.

“Keep in mind, this is a request for proposals,” she said. “It’s a request for ideas. … The depot is a prime location, close to the (Grand) hotel, close to the Convention Center and close to what we hope will become an entertainment center on the North end of Broadway Street.”

Recruiting new businesses

Meanwhile, the depot is not the only building with room for new business recruits. The plan suggests developing an arts district at the heart of downtown where retailers and artists’ shops already exist.

To that end, Doyle said city leaders, FOR Natchez, the Downtown Merchant Group and the real estate communities have actively recruited more retailers to the heart of downtown, and at least three buildings have sold since December.

Doyle said the buyers are in the process of establishing a jewelry artisan’s shop on North Commerce Street — between Darby’s and Crafted Gallery & Art Supply — and both a retail store and art gallery are up-and-coming on Main Street.

“All of this is happening out of the goodwill of the people who are wanting to see Natchez move forward,” Doyle said. “There is an active group of engaged citizens who are constantly marketing and virally advertising and promoting the vision of the downtown master plan and trying to attract investors to the area.”

A developing idea for attracting more entrepreneurs is the creation of incentive packages that the city board would approve, Grennell said.

These packages could entice new businesses and individuals with possible tax abatements, tax credits and high-speed internet access for online business needs, Grennell said.

Hiring a Downtown Director

Much of the task of new business recruitment would fall on the shoulders of a downtown director, which officials are working to hire and fund, said Riccardo Giani, Natchez director of planning and zoning.

The city would benefit from having a full-time employee with the responsibility to bring new faces to downtown, creating packages and brochures so that when a developer comes to Natchez, information could be readily available, Giani said.

“It’s like a visitor’s basket you’d receive at the visitor’s center,” Giani said. “Local incentives will hopefully be put in place in the near future to go with existing incentives like historic tax credits. We would need someone to organize all of that and get all of our stakeholders to work together to accomplish the goals of the plan.”

Grennell said several entities have been tasked with various responsibilities to see parts of the project through, but currently no full-time employee is in place to move the process more efficiently.

“Once we get a downtown director in place, that person can be the energy needed to keep the development process moving forward,” Grennell said, adding the City of Natchez has allocated $25,000 in its budget for a salaried position while Natchez Inc. is willing to supply office space and equipment.

Grennell said ideally the position would be fully funded within the next six months, but ideas for doing so are still in development.

Walker said having a downtown director’s position funded and operational is a primary factor in enacting the downtown master plan.

“A key part to this is setting up a downtown director … because that person’s job would be to implement this plan,” Walker said. “The thing about Natchez is you have all the entities that are involved, but you don’t have someone whose main focus is downtown. Therefore progress is going to be a bit slower because of that.”