Data reveals surprising gains and losses for retail dollars and community support for city’s Downtown Master Plan
Published 12:16 pm Monday, March 27, 2023
NATCHEZ — On March 23, at the Natchez Convention Center, an expert in community development unveiled surprising data showing that the Natchez trade area is actually drawing in shoppers and millions of dollars from outside the local trade area.
Speaking to an engaged group of 60 local businesspeople, Dr. Rachael Carter, Mississippi State University Center for Government & Community Development, revealed that more than $2.7 million in clothing sales, $4 million in sporting goods sales, and more than $58 million in general merchandise sales are coming into the community from beyond the trade area of 24 miles.
The Natchez trade area is also drawing in more than $34 million in food and beverage sales and $9 million in food service sales (Source: ESRI 2022).
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The program titled “Recapturing Natchez’s Lost Retail Dollars” was sponsored by the Downtown Natchez Alliance (DNA).
Defining the Trade Area
“Our work is downtown revitalization and to do that, to improve our economy and retail sales, we need a baseline — an economic snapshot — to help us determine the community’s retail position,” said Mickey Howley, executive director of DNA, the organizer of the program. The first step is to define the local trade area and to assess income levels and market sectors.
“Without good data, we’re shooting in the dark,” said Howley. “I’ve worked with Dr Carter for many years on many projects throughout the state of Mississippi and this project just the beginning of what will be an ongoing relationship between DNA, the city, Dr. Carter, and Mississippi State University Extension Services,” he added.
Pat Biglane, president and CEO of Concordia Bank & Trust Co., was one of several bankers in attendance.
“I enjoyed the presentation. I knew some of it because of the business I’m in, but it was good to see the data backing it up,” he said. “There were lots of positives presented and good conversation afterwards.”
Biglane said he was glad to see Dr. Carter explain the concept of the trade area.
“People don’t realize that we cater to 50,000 consumers throughout our defined trade area,” said Biglane.
Dr. Carter stated that although the population of Natchez is estimated at 14,854, the population of the trade area is much higher at 47,041, and both figures have steadily decreased since 2020 (ESRI 2022). She identified the Natchez trade area as extending on average 18 to 24 miles from the city’s corporate limits. It extends approximately 8 miles toward Ferriday, Louisiana, 37 miles toward Centreville, 28 miles toward Woodville, and 32 miles toward Brookhaven and Vicksburg. She also presented and contextualized ESRI’s most current available data on local market segments, including how certain segments earn a living, how they spend their time, and their shopping habits, with the caveat that the global pandemic had altered shopping patterns in many Mississippi communities, including shifts to online sales and increases in local shopping and local food interests.
Attendee Leon Hollins, Natchez artist and radio announcer for 97.7 The Beat, said that he was not surprised to see that so many people are shopping out of town or on the internet, but he was surprised by how low the median and per capita income figures are for the Natchez area.
The data presented showed a 2021 Median Household Income of $29,739 and a Per Capita Income of $20,140 for the Natchez Trade Area and $19,328 for the city of Natchez.
“Dr. Carter did a good job of explaining why we don’t get the big box stores. It’s because our per capita income is low. We don’t have a big middle class. The higher end retailers are looking at the same per capita income numbers that we are looking at today and the market is not there for them.”
As part of the DNA project, Dr. Carter also conducted a Retail Gap Analysis to identify “leakage” in retail spending and to help identify goods and services that local people are purchasing outside the community. The results showed that Natchez is leaking approximately $778,000 in health care sales, $2 million in office supply and gift store sales, and $3.9 million in home furnishing sales. (Source: ESRI 2021 Updated Demographics and 2017 Retail Market Place, so new businesses since 2017 may alter leakage results.)
“The data confirmed my suspicions,” said Stacy Conde of Conde Contemporary & Mother’s Natchez. “All of these little bits of information form a map that helps us as retailers identify what people are actually looking for and what services and products we should offer.”
Referring to Dr. Carter’s tables and bar graphs with numbers of where people are shopping, what they are shopping for, what percentages of people are leaving to shop elsewhere, Conde said, “This information helps me identify opportunities with quantifiable numbers.”
She noted that Conde Contemporary, a fine art gallery, has a very specific audience and there is a very small percentage of people looking for fine art for a collection or for their homes, “but our other business, Mother’s Natchez, is an apothecary and gift shop featuring primarily American-made goods, particularly health and beauty products. The information presented really does influence what I might actually carry in our shop,” said Conde.
Conde also has firsthand experience with the pull of the Natchez trade area. Her family is from Amite County where Gloster was the largest town, but Natchez was the big city. “If we needed to go to the eye doctor, we went to Natchez; if we went out to dinner, we often went to Natchez; for shopping, we went to Natchez,” said Conde. Conde spent much of her married adult life in Miami, where she is from and where her children were born and raised, but for her Natchez was always a magical place. “For me, it’s a matter of familial pride,” she said. “I want to see Natchez and all of southwest Mississippi succeed and do something beautiful.”
Downtown Natchez Community Survey
Working with Dr. Carter, MSU, and Mississippi Main Street Association, the Downtown Natchez Alliance conducted a community survey in 2022-23 which had 489 respondents. More than 80% of respondents said they shop locally for groceries, fast food, lumber and hardware, banking, hair stylists, and lawn and garden supplies, but only 61% choose Natchez for healthcare needs, 54% shop locally for home furnishings, and only 25% shop locally for clothing and shoes. These market analysis data also confirmed these results.
Survey respondents were asked what kind of businesses they would like to see in Natchez and popular responses included restaurants, recreation, children’s stores and activities, grocery stores or corner markets, and a men’s store. The results also revealed that respondents are shopping online or in Baton Rouge for clothing and shoes if they are not shopping in Natchez, and that Baton Rouge is Natchez’s biggest competitor for entertainment and recreation, followed by New Orleans.
Respondents were asked how Natchez could improve. Answers included a cleanup and repair of downtown buildings and the community overall. They would like to see more industry and more jobs, more attractions, and more enforcement of codes and laws, as well as improvements to education and more activities for youth. Finally, respondents would like to see more communication and cooperation between groups of people.
The majority of survey respondents also gave a rating of “Very Important” to the city’s 2018 Downtown Master Plan priorities as follows:
• 72.4% – Preservation and development of the Bluff, Arts District, Triangle and Key Buildings
• 67.9% – Downtown Mobility: traffic, parking, walkability, bike routes, wayfinding
• 59.7% – Downtown Residential: new housing, upper floor housing, playgrounds, recreation
• 79.7% – Business Development: improved vacancy rate, marketing downtown as a small business destination, developing incentives for public arts
“During the presentation, there was a lot of discussion about the importance of communication and that’s an area where I think DNA is definitely on the right track,” said attendee Leon Hollins. “They’re continuing to ask questions, to reach out, to engage people. They’re working hard to gather facts and information and bring it to the people.” But, Hollins noted, there is more work to be done: “We need to put more emphasis on getting the word out through our two radio groups and our two newspapers and not rely so much on social media.”
Hollins and others were perplexed that only 4 percent of the 489 community survey respondents identified as African American, while 68% identified as white. Some of the 28% who did not identify could have been African American, “but there is no way to know,” said Hollins. He encouraged DNA to utilize more traditional media to make sure that they are engaging the broadest possible audience. “Depending on Facebook and Instagram is like a fashion moment, but it shouldn’t be a complete substitute for traditional media,” said Hollins.
“Our community came together for our downtown master plan, but that was 2018 and pre-COVID,” Hollins said. He recalled how COVID was “so divisive for our community” and a stumbling block for progress. “But now, since COVID, I find that people are somehow more mature and maybe more ready to focus, to work together, and to make things happen,” Hollins stated. “I definitely think that DNA is making all the right moves and I am going to fully support it anyway I possible can.”
Stacy Conde believes DNA made the right move by bringing Mickey Howley to Natchez as the downtown director. “I feel that we are in very capable hands with Howley at the helm. He has deep experience in downtown revitalization work and when I make suggestions, he knows what I’m talking about because as an art gallery owner himself, he understands the ideas I’m pitching for downtown that are art related.”
Conde also shares Hollins’s sentiment about the importance of an organization dedicated to the serious business of downtown. “I’m very glad for the work that DNA is trying to do. To see an organization whose sole focus is on pushing forward for downtown and retailers gives me great confidence. We need that because a healthy and vibrant downtown is the impetus for moving the entire town forward.”
A lighter note
Dr. Carter’s presentation ended on a light note: The data shows that Natchez retail sales are above the national average in gym memberships, bingo, watching basketball and football, caregiving, roller skating, and purchasing cat food.