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Natchez candidates make their case in chamber forum

NATCHEZ — Tuesday’s Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce Municipal Candidates Forum might not have been a debate, but that didn’t stop some candidates from firing a few shots at their opponents as they presented their positions on the issues.

“One of our candidates sitting up here said he has recruited industry and that nobody else has done that,” said independent mayoral candidate Phillip West in reference to an earlier statement made by Democratic mayoral candidate Dan Gibson. “I just want to let you all know that is not true. … The person who made this statement served as mayor of Crystal Springs for two years, then quit and ran for governor as a Republican.”

Gibson used his closing statement to respond to West’s assertion.

“After less than four years, I was asked to run for governor because I had such a great record for building industry in Crystal Springs, balancing the budget, making it safer. At the age of 34, when people think you are good enough to run for governor — my gosh, that’s a pretty heavy thing. I’m glad I ran for governor. It opened up all the contacts I have now to put to work for Natchez.”

Every candidate for mayor and aldermen positions, whether opposed or not, made an appearance at the Natchez Convention Center on Tuesday evening.

More than 300 people attended the forum with a standing-room-only crowed filling the seats and lining walls of the convention center to hear each of the municipal candidates make their case before the April 7 primary.

Candidates for Natchez Alderman Ward 1, who were the first at the table to say their piece, were also fired up as they addressed questions that were submitted beforehand to Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce by members of the community — questions pertaining to crime, broken streetlights and tall grass, recreation, downtown business development and care for senior citizens.

Each candidate for Natchez aldermen positions was asked what they believe the primary concerns are for their wards.

Without any finger-pointing or name-calling, Democratic candidate Valencia Hall and independent candidate Jamar White, who are running against incumbent Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, both said their ward deserves visibility and transparency from their alderperson.

“Not only do we not have accountability, availability and a presence in Ward 1, but we don’t have a voice on the board of aldermen,” Hall said. “I will be that voice. I will be that leader and I will be that visible presence to each of you and to the citizens of Natchez.”

White, who is a 21-year-old graduate of Natchez Early College Academy, said he also promotes board transparency and progress for the community members, who “won’t have to wait 18 to 20 years for things to get done.”

“I believe one of the main concerns for Ward 1 is lack of visibility from our leader,” White said. “Had our leader driven through the neighborhoods and through the ward, current Alderwoman Mathis would have known that there are houses that need to be torn down, roads that need to be fixed and simply people in the community who just have questions and would like to see her face.”

Mathis touched on some of the things the board has done and things she would continue to do to address some needs in Natchez and in her ward.

Mathis said she helped introduce people to the SNAP program, which provides house repairs for eligible applicants, and worked outside of Natchez to procure grants and programs to fund community projects.

“Thank you for 24 years,” Mathis said. “I ask for four more.”

Candidates for the Ward 4 Alderman position touched on similar issues.

Fredrick Todd, who is an athletic director McLaurin Elementary School and is running as Democrat in Ward 4, said he would promote a healthy and clean city just as he did at McLaurin, which won Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Mississippi’s Healthiest School award this year.

Brenda Floyd, Republican Ward 4 candidate who is a business owner, said she and her husband employ dozens of people through their day-to-day business operations, including BB’s Grill, and believes she can help bring the city closer to what it was before she graduated in business administration in the early 1980s.

“I am a small business owner and I care about Natchez, but Natchez is not what it was when I graduated and came back here. It needs help desperately,” Floyd said.

Michael Calcote, Democratic Ward 4 candidate and former employee at International Paper and floor manager at Sports Center, said he is passionate about people and is supportive of recreation and education.

Incumbent Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Bridgewater-Irving said her goal for the next four years is to support education, safe neighborhoods and sound infrastructure, broadband technology and small businesses.

Incumbent Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made not of things Natchez had accomplished over the past four years — increasing salaries for law enforcement and operating within a budget without taking out a loan at the end of the fiscal cycle, he said. With the addition of LED lighting and new security cameras, Dillard said he also felt the city would become a safer and more pleasant place to live in the near future.

“I believe the greatest challenge for the next generation is the infinite opportunities that they are going to see,” Dillard said. “We’re in the middle of a technological revolution that is going to dwarf the industrial revolution. … What I want to bring to the City of Natchez is high-speed internet and WiFi as economic development to drive and provide opportunities to the next generation and let their imagination take them as far as they can go.”

Dillard’s opponents in Ward 6, Arrick Rice and Queen Ella Wilson, both Democrats, said they are concerned for children and the future of Natchez.

Wilson said “our kids are lost” with little to do in the city recreationally and no available jobs to keep them in Natchez when they grow up. Additionally, Wilson said she is concerned with abandoned houses, high crime, and poor drainage and roads citywide.

Rice said he would like to bring back neighborhood watches in Ward 6 that would serve as “information stations” and not as “complaint stations.”

Mayoral candidates were asked a separate set of questions.

When asked how he would shepherd his ideas through the board of aldermen in a “weak mayor, strong board” system of government, Gibson described how he could act as a strong mayor instead.

“Let me get a few jobs here,” Gibson said. “Let me make some contacts between Jackson and Washington and put Natchez back to work again and you won’t hear that term ‘weak mayor.’ No. We don’t have a weak mayor system of government. Perhaps we’ve had some weak mayors, but when you start making progress and start yielding and bringing results people get on board with that. Folks, its called leadership.”

When mayoral candidates were asked whether they would support a 1% food and beverage tax proposed to state legislators to pay off $14 million in bonds used for various tourism and economic development projects in the region, most said the city should let the people vote on whether to put the tax on themselves.

“I’m not sure (the tax) would generate the $14 million in bonds,” said independent mayoral candidate and local businessman Richard Branyan. “At the moment, we have a 1.5% sales tax on restaurants. It’s generating about $800,000 a year. We have a 3% tax on hotels that is bringing in an extra $500,000 a year and we have a $2 heads on beds tax that is bringing in $380,000. I’m not sure how an extra 1% is going to bring $14 million in bond money. … I would prefer to take the money we’re already generating with these special taxes and make that money bring more money. … It’s more of a hidden tax, but I’m not really in favor of it. I think we need to grow the city and not tax people more.”

In his closing remarks, Democratic candidate Tony Fields referred to himself as “the true Democratic candidate for Mayor.”

“We’re looking for a sustainable success in Natchez,” Fields said. “I want you to lean on your collective memories. We’ve gone through the smooth talkers, career politicians and experienced businessmen. We’ve changed them out every four years since the great Tony Byrne. I’m asking you again to look at my leadership experience, accountability and professionalism along with my loyalty, caution, commitment and work ethic to lead our city into the future.”