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Tourism fuels this River City’s economic development

NATCHEZ — The Mississippi Business Journal recently spoke with Mayor Butch Brown of Natchez about ongoing efforts to revitalize the city that attracts large numbers of visitors to the annual Natchez Pilgrimage and other cultural and historical events of the oldest city on the Mississippi River.

Best known for its rich historical heritage including a large number of antebellum structures, Natchez continues to grow as a tourist attraction.

In this interview, Brown discussed what’s being done to promote tourism and other economic development in Natchez in 2000.

Mississippi Business Journal: What is the most important economic development goal for Natchez in 2000?

Mayor Butch Brown: Tourism is what fuels the fire around here right now. We currently have three major facilities under construction or being renovated downtown. We are building a brand new 58,000-square-foot convention center, and also a new 12,000-square-foot community center that will be built in conjunction with the convention center so that residents will have more accessibility to a facility that is affordable. Also, the city auditorium is being remodeled. We tie all of that in with our continuing expansion of tourism-related activities.

MBJ: What efforts are being made to promote Natchez tourism?

BB: We have one of the finest new welcome and visitors center in America that includes interactive videos, e-mail sales and Internet activities. We’re are using the new technology in promoting what is going on in and around Natchez. We are up to about 40 events a year and want to capitalize on that.

We’re promoting not only what we traditionally have had to sell, but are also embarking on a new product, recreation. We are in the beginning stages of constructing a new state-of-the-art recreation center for residents, as well as for attracting out-of-city and out-of-state tournaments. We want to bring families into the community for extended stays because those tournaments are very good for the local economy.

MBJ: Are you expecting to see many new commercial real estate developments in Natchez this year?

BB: Housing starts are very good but, more importantly, retail developments and housing in downtown Natchez are booming. The redevelopment of our historic district includes housing on the second and third floors of buildings. We now have upwards of 75 residences downtown, which is a really interesting thing that has happened. We have one of the most vibrant downtowns in the state now. We got five awards from Mississippi Mainstreet Association for those efforts last year.

We also have a new Farmer’s Market in the downtown area that gives another amenity to our historic district. It is something tourist like similar to the French Market in downtown New Orleans. This just opened last fall. It will grow and expand, and become a better market for craftsmen, as well as farmers.

We are still seeing good commercial real estate development. We have a half dozen new fast food businesses that have just opened or are under construction, and two new hardware centers. There are two new drug store operations coming in, and new tires centers. There is a lot of development on the commercial corridors on the peripheries in Natchez. We have a new 300-lot subdivision around Beau Pre Country Club which opened last summer. Real estate development around it is significant.

MBJ: What are the challenges and opportunities for new industrial prospects or expanded industries in Natchez?

BB: We’re hustling for smoke stacks just like every other community in the U.S. We’re out there digging, and trying to ferret those out. We’re trying to make our town stand out to be noticed. We have had some potential green industry clients, an aircraft industry and a port-related distribution business. We’re happy we have some people to talk to, but those things take a long time. Gaming in Natchez is growing but not at the rate seen elsewhere in the state.

MBJ: What is your opinion about the role of gaming in the Natchez economy?

BB: Natchez made it possible for the rest of the state to have the gaming industry because legislation to allow dockside gambling in the state was introduced by Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez. We had the first gaming permit. We would have had the first casino, but the Isle of Capri went by us to the Coast. Now Isle of Capri is coming to Natchez to take over the operations of the Lady Luck. We look forward to them coming down and becoming a part of our community. Lady Luck has been very good for us, and we hate to see them leaving.

We think there is another boat on the horizon. We don’t spend a lot of time hustling one. We know our market is limited. We’re waiting for the right operator to come along and discover us. We believe Natchez could support at least two gaming vessels or maybe three, but then the market would be saturated at least for a while. But who would have dreamed that gaming could have done what it has in the state market?

MBJ: What is the biggest challenge you face in governing Natchez?

BB: Natchez is a very old and unique city. We’re the oldest city on the Mississippi River. We have had a culturally diverse community since the day we were founded. Cultural diversity, dealing with the many facets of social and cultural differences, is a real challenge. We hope one day to be a community in our country that sets the standard for dealing with social and cultural diversity. We’re really trying, but we have to do more.

MBJ: Describe the important infrastructure development projects that are ongoing or planned in Natchez this year.

BB: The Natchez Bluff stabilization project is in the middle phase. The entire project will cost in the range of $50 million, and it will take another three to four years to complete it totally. The project is all authorized and funded. We’re also still working on reclaiming the old Natchez Under The Hill waterfront area, which is about 50% completed.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.


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