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New projects ongoing amid pandemic

NATCHEZ — The proprietors who have a contract to open a new restaurant in the old train depot on the Natchez bluff said they hope to begin hosting some events in the venue soon.

A formal opening, however, will have to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic lightens up.

Nick Wallace, executive chef for Church Hill Variety and owners John Norris and Tate Taylor, spoke to Natchez Rotary Club members via an online Zoom meeting Wednesday.

The trio plans to transform the old depot into a five-star farm-to-table restaurant called The Depot under the Church Hill Variety chain.

“I think you have to be super creative to think about putting a five-star restaurant in a rural area,” said Wallace, who will also operate Taylor and Norris’ Church Hill Variety restaurant in the Church Hill community. “It took a while for the vision to really set in but when it set in it really was there.”

Also onboard for the project are Sarah Sookraj, the new general manager for Churchill Variety LLC, and Chef Ashley Allen, both of the Virgin Islands, Wallace said.

The Depot is just one of a number of projects the group has in the works for the bluff.

Norris and Taylor also have purchased Smoot’s Grocery and the former Steampunk Coffee building on High Street and they plan to transform the bluff and Broadway Street area into an entertainment district.

Norris said the goal is eventually to have public restrooms on the bluff, a children’s play area and an amphitheater for concerts and shows.

“A lot of our hopes and dreams for Natchez and the region are about reinventing the tourist experience, the work experience, the family experience in a way that encompasses all of Natchez,” Norris said. “The idea, what we are calling the Broadway Entertainment District … is about bringing families to the bluff, it is about bringing community to the bluff.”

Taylor said the entertainment district is a community project, and Norris said the plans will have a workforce-training component in working with programs and students at Co-Lin, Alcorn and the Natchez School District.

“I want you guys to know that we are not doing this alone,” Taylor said. “We are working in direct conjunction with the mayor’s office, the aldermen, our citizens and community. … This is a community effort.”

Norris and Taylor are film producers who have produced such films as “The Help,” “Get on Up” and “Ma.”

Norris said the film industry in Natchez is directly related to the tourism industry.

“It is directly connected to hospitality and everything else that occurs in Natchez,” Norris said. “Our feeling is that every person who owns a business in Natchez is our partner, and we are your partners so in terms of that welcome mat being out the people that come here and have an experience … It is a business and all of us are partners in making people welcome and all of you guys were good at that before we ever got here.”

Norris said filming projects have ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the industry is beginning to pick back up.

“Obviously the pandemic has been an awful experience for everyone,” Norris said. “We are trying to use it to our advantage. We can provide a safe shooting experience. People know that.”

The ultimate goal Taylor said is to set a couple of television series in Natchez going at the same time.

“That would pour $80 million per show into the economy which will bring entrepreneurs to Natchez to open shops,” Taylor said. “I say this a lot, it is a chicken and egg thing now, so we are laying a big egg. That is my goal. A big risky egg but it is going to pay off.”

Norris said opening the restaurants would be too risky in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like with the restaurants, as soon as the light is at the end of the tunnel, which I think will be by the end of the year, we are going to have our opening plan in earnest,” Norris said of opening the restaurants.

Wallace said The Depot restaurant plans to offer a light menu to people on the bluff during the Natchez Balloon Festival scheduled for Oct. 16-18 on the bluff.