Sunday focus: Looking at Natchez, Inc. 10 years later

Published 12:17 am Saturday, August 24, 2019

NATCHEZ — In 2009-2010, the Natchez and Adams County community decided to try a new approach in the area’s economic development strategy.

The community hired a consultant to do an evaluation and develop a more effective model for economic development.

Thus, Natchez NOW and Natchez, Inc. were developed as a partnership between the public and private sectors to grow economic prospects in the area.

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“We have had several starts on economic development over the years, and all of them met with very little success,” said Jack Stephens past chairman of Natchez, Inc. and Natchez NOW.

“We said, ‘We want to do something effective,’” Stephens said. “‘We’ve had these false starts with economic development around here. We want to do it right this time.’ And the consulting firm and a lot of the stakeholders, local officials, local businesspeople and industries came up with a recommendation for what resulted in a public, private partnership that we call Natchez, Inc. I think the difference in the false starts and Natchez, Inc. is the private sector is heavily involved.”

Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc., said the consultants determined a public, private partnership would be an effective model and formed Natchez NOW, which is a private fundraising and advisory arm of Natchez, Inc.

Natchez NOW consists of approximately 80 businesses or individuals who partner with governments of Adams County, Natchez and most recently Vidalia.

“Its purpose is to help bring about new investments and jobs to the area to work with existing business and industry retention and expansion and improve the economic climate of the area,” Russ said.

Stephens said the government is effective in the partnership in offering tax breaks and incentives to prospective industries and the private sector brings an added element to the equation.

“The private sector brings a special awareness and a special set of skills and a language, and I think economic development prospects understand that language,” Stephens said.

The Natchez Inc. board consists of appointed members, one each from the Adams County Board of Supervisors and the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen as well as one member each from the Business and Civic League and the Adams County Chamber of Commerce and three more seats filled by members of Natchez NOW.

Membership for Natchez NOW is awarded through donations, said Pat Biglane, chairman of Natchez NOW and board member of Natchez, Inc.

“We have platinum members who pay $10,000 a year and pledge a three-year commitment,” Biglane said. “We have gold members; we have silver members. We have members who have given $2,500, $1,000 or $100, people who just want to be involved.”

Voting members of Natchez NOW pay a minimum of $1,000, Biglane said.

Ten years later, Natchez and Adams County have made some progress, bringing in several new industries, but struggles still exist in the local economy, or at least that is the perception of some residents.

Glass half full

“Many people are accustomed to the problems we’ve had economically with the industries closing over the years,” Stephens said, “the decline of the oil industry, International Paper and all. They are accustomed to the glass being half full. We need to change our perspective as a community. The glass is not half empty. It is just half full.”

Russ points to numerous successes over the past 10 years since Natchez, Inc. was established, including more than 600 new jobs created and $947 million that has been invested by 10 new industries in the Miss-Lou, including Great River Industries, Jones Companies, Delta Energy and vonDrehle Corporation.

Some economic development prospects have, however, met setbacks that help contribute to the “half-empty” perception, including an announcement last week that World Energy would temporarily cease production of biofuel at its Natchez location due to changes in government policies that made it unprofitable to continue production levels and an announcement earlier this year that CoreCivic, which owns and operates the Adams County Correctional Facility that employs approximately 400 people, had lost its Bureau of Prisons contract.

Russ said despite those setbacks, Natchez, Inc. still has a strong portfolio with prospects on the horizon.

“We have a good, healthy portfolio now that we are fortunate to have,” Russ said, adding that Natchez, Inc. also is always working on new leads and traveling to meet with prospective industries and businesses.

Stephens said that is another success of the Natchez, Inc. and the Natchez NOW partnership.

“We’ve got a lot of opportunities, and we’ve got to develop a positive can-do attitude,” Stephens said. “I think that is probably the main component right there. We need to prepare ourselves for success.”

Product of success

With the new industries and expansions at Jones Companies and Delta Energy, many job openings exist in the Miss-Lou, as Syrah Technologies, a spherical graphite manufacturer for the automotive battery industry, and Vidalia Denim in Vidalia are hiring.

Natchez, Inc. is holding a job fair from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Natchez Convention Center to help the employers fill the need for positions including office workers, welders, truck drivers and more.

Expansions at Great River Industries and Jones Companies are expected to create 60 new jobs with an economic impact of $3 million in annual payroll and an additional 85 indirect jobs with a payroll of $2,720,000, Russ said.

Other industries that have openings also would be represented at the job fair, including vonDrehle, Delta Energy, CoreCivic and WIN Job Center representatives will be on hand to put prospective employees into their database.

Russ said people interested in jobs should bring a resume and any certifications they might possess, including certificates earned through Work Keys assessment tests.

Other benefits

The success in bringing some 10 new industries to the Miss-Lou over the past 10 years brought not only jobs but also tax revenues, Biglane said.

“From 2011 on toward 2018 … these companies that have come in that were not here before Natchez, Inc. they’ve brought in around $10,700,000 in ad valorem taxes to the county,” Biglane said. “Great River Industries, Magnolia Frac Sand, Genesis Energy, vonDrehle Corporation, Delta Energy, Netco Express, those names, they weren’t around before Natchez, Inc. started and then also Syrah Technology and Vidalia Mills. They have generated around $200,000 of taxes already even though they haven’t gotten fully up and running and that doesn’t include sales tax that the parish gets for those and the Adams County industries. Of course, we want to see jobs and our folks get jobs.”

Stephens said that is what Natchez, Inc. is all about.

“As we looked at it the common denominator of many of the problems which Natchez experiences, it came down to economic development,” Stephens said. “That will give you increased tax revenues, which will provide more services, provide more money for the school system to give more effective guidance to our young people and instructions to get them up to a level where they can be successful after school, an increase in population which leads to more opportunities. Increasing population means increasing income levels and that is going to bring other businesses to town.”

After 10 years

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell was a member of the Adams County Board of Supervisors when Natchez, Inc. and Natchez NOW were founded.

Grennell said he thinks Natchez, Inc. has had plenty of success but as all the parties agree, more could be done.

Particularly, Grennell said, he would like to see Natchez, Inc. do more recruitment of retail business to Natchez.

“I know they like to claim that it is not a part of their mission, but I would like to see more involvement in retail recruitment and retail growth in this community,” Grennell said. “I really, really would love to see Natchez, Inc. more involved in helping this community not only to grow retail but also to retain what we have to play a role in retention and recruitment of retail both for this entire community and Natchez, because we serve as the hub for the greater Miss-Lou area.”

Stephens said he understands the need for retail recruitment and retention but that active economic development will take care of that.

“We don’t have to recruit retail because retail is aware of those statistics that represent the target market and once we get the population and the disposable income level up we won’t have to recruit retail or big box stores or any of the other support,” Stephens said. “They will find us. Economic development makes everything work better.”

Grennell also said he would like to get more updates from Natchez, Inc. for the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen even though the city’s appointee to Natchez, Now, Tim Byrd, provides quarterly updates.

Grennell also said he had hoped Natchez, Inc. would have developed more prospects for industry in the area by now.

“I would have been hoping we would have had tremendous industrial growth in this community after we formed the new economic development structure, which is Natchez, Inc.,” Grennell said. “I was hoping that we would have seen some major growth here in this community. Yeah, we’ve had a few things to happen like Delta Energy, one or two others, but I was hoping to see something major.”

Sue Stedman current chairman of Natchez, Inc. said she is pleased with the work, Natchez, Inc. and Natchez NOW have accomplished in the first 10 years.

“With the number of jobs that have been lost in the region with the decline in oil prices, which had a tremendous impact on our local economy,” Stedman said, “thank goodness we have been able to supply some jobs back to the area.”

Stedman said economic development is a community pursuit.

“The community plays a big part in helping us sell Natchez to industries when they come to town,” Stedman said.