Craft: Time to revisit Natchez Inc. approach

Published 11:39 am Monday, September 27, 2021

NATCHEZ — Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft is hopeful the City of Vidalia can continue being part of the Natchez Inc. economic development effort, but to do so requires changes in its contract.

Vidalia joined Natchez Inc. in 2016. Its five-year contract was written specifically to accommodate Heather Malone, who was deputy director of Natchez Inc. and represented Vidalia and Concordia Parish economic development interests, Craft said. He is making arrangements to terminate Vidalia’s contract with Natchez Inc. as it exists now.

Craft said after a recent City of Vidalia board meeting his intentions about economic development and Natchez Inc. were misrepresented in media reports.

“Basically, what the media reported was the mayor is questioning the accountability of Natchez Inc., and that’s not true,” Craft said.

“Heather is gone. That contract is no longer valid because it was specific to Heather. It includes specifics about her salary and how Vidalia would be reimbursed for her salary out of the $100,000 it pledged to Natchez Inc. and it talks about Heather being under the complete supervision of Chandler Russ (executive director of Natchez Inc.).

“With Heather being a Louisiana resident all of her life, that relationship basically worked. Not only did she do lots of economic development, she did community development as well, which is very important to me,” Craft said.

Based on Craft’s interpretation of a letter sent to him and the Vidalia Board of Aldermen on Sept. 12, he said Russ wants to be the “sole person to choose Heather’s replacement. If they pick someone with all Mississippi roots and experience, I’m not sure we would get our money’s worth,” he said.

Craft also said he is concerned about what the Louisiana Economic Development department thinks about its economic development contract with Natchez and Adams County and wants to get information from that agency before entering into a new contract with Natchez Inc.

“I want to know if the Louisiana Economic Development group with the State of Louisiana has a problem calling a Mississippi Economic Development group to give their prospect to,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m for a regional approach. I’m for jobs. But I’m sure they don’t want to lose a prospect to Mississippi.”

Craft said he is to meet with Louisiana Economic Development officials next week.

“I want to find out if they know of any other such agreements with border towns, like maybe Lake Charles and Texas. What are the logistics and dynamics? I want to get their thoughts on it. I want to make sure we have the Louisiana Economic Development group’s blessing. And I have got to meet with Concordia Parish Economic Development and see that they want to do going forward,” Craft said.

“This is going to take a few months to digest and to get a clear path for what’s best for both sides of the river. We are excited for the success that Natchez has been having with businesses and its real estate market, and I mean that in a sincere way. But at the end of the day, we want opportunity for Vidalia.”

Craft praised the work of Natchez Inc. in helping bring Vidalia Denim and Syrah Technologies to Vidalia. However, he said he has not been in the loop with Natchez Inc. on sharing of information and he has not been asked to be at the table to help sell Vidalia.

“I think I can be effective in selling Vidalia (and Concordia Parish) to prospective employers. We have the hydroelectric plant. I’m getting calls from commercial businesses asking if they can get these rebates for electricity. When they learn they could get half their electric payments back, I can guarantee you they will come and kick the tires on Vidalia. I want to be there to help sell it. We are a one-stop shop for utilities. The community offers a great quality of life. We have great opportunities for housing,” Craft said.

Russ confident issues can be resolved

Russ said Vidalia has benefited greatly from its partnership with Natchez Inc. and he is confident a new contract can be agreed upon.

“I think we are in good shape. I don’t think anything is contentious. It’s touchy in some areas where the mayor feels like the person hired needs to be a town employee rather than a Natchez Inc. employee. The relationship and partnership has been highly beneficial to Vidalia over the six-year period with the recruitment of two major industries and millions of infrastructure dollars. We just need to find how best to move forward,” Russ said.

He said while working for Natchez Inc., Malone remained a Vidalia employee because of her years of prior work for Vidalia and her participation in its retirement system. Malone’s salary was deducted from the $100,000 Vidalia paid as part of its Natchez Inc. contract. Basically, it paid the difference to Natchez Inc.

He said he sent a letter to Craft and Vidalia aldermen providing history of Natchez Inc. and asking for a new contract designed after the one followed by other partners.

“We are basically requesting we go to a clean slate and follow the guidance of all of the other partners — the City of Natchez, Adams County and Natchez Now — and we hire the employee and manage the services we have agreed to provide. That way we have no issues with actually managing the employee.

“In today’s professional economic development environment, we are going to go out and hire the best person we can hire to deliver those services, whether they are from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas or Wyoming. We want the best person to deliver those services and feel confident we will be able to find that person based on our reputation as an organization and our contacts within the economic development industry,” Russ said.

He said one of the reasons Natchez Inc. was formed was on the recommendation of a national economic development consultant “to establish a separation from politics and economic development, meaning the ability to operate professionally and independently without the political interference of the past. Day in and day out our focus in on moving our area forward. My board has remained steadfast toward maintaining this as one of our founding principles.”

He said the employee hired to replace Malone would focus on economic development in Louisiana.

“The majority of their time and effort would be spent in Louisiana, but they would not solely be assigned to Louisiana. They would be assigned to the region. Heather worked projects in Mississippi and I worked projects in Louisiana, base on time and who was better suited to carry out that job function. Where we are lacking right now is delivering those services to Louisiana,” Russ said.