NATCHEZ — It’s currently a mixed bag businesswise for this historic city that majestically sits 200 feet above the Mississippi River on the highest promontory north of the Gulf of Mexico. Community leaders are optimistic and concerned at the same time.
Two years older than New Orleans, Natchez is the commercial, retail and medical center for a 50-mile radius. The city has a diverse economy with tourism, manufacturing and the oil and gas industries. The opening of a second casino will bring 300 to 400 jobs, but recent closings of the International Paper and Johns Manville plants meant the loss of 1,000 jobs.
“Things are very tough right now,” said Walter Tipton, executive director of the Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s changed in the last 18 months and manufacturing is no longer our largest employer. With 2,500 people working in tourism, that’s the largest employer and the fastest growing.”
In spite of losing manufacturing jobs, he thinks the future looks great for a lot of reasons. The completion of eight miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway into the city and 10 miles in Jackson will bring the last two links of this 240-mile national parkway to fruition. Started in 1934, it is the seventh most visited parkway in the country. Tipton believes the completion of these two segments will make it jump to number two, bringing more visitors into Natchez.
He also points out that U.S. 61 from Natchez to Baton Rouge is being four laned and the stretch from Vicksburg to Woodville will be designated a national historic scenic byway. There are 26 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places directly on that 100-mile section of Highway 61. The National Park Service is opening the William Johnson House, a property owned by the first freed black man in Natchez, to the public this fall.
All of these things will generate more tourism in a city that is already recognized nationally. Just last year it was named to a list of “America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the country’s largest private nonprofit preservation organization.
Laura Godfrey, executive director of the chamber of commerce, said the chamber has had 15% growth this year with a lot of new businesses opening.
“They’re not big ones, but we have a lot of good things going on with new and expanding businesses,” she said. “Tourism is really growing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of Natchez.”
Godfrey said she has three pages of these openings and improvements that include a new sports center, the federal courthouse that’s under construction, renovations at the Isle of Capri Casino’s hotel and expansions at Community Hospital and Natchez Regional Hospital.
Tipton also noted the city’s great river port and said he believes they will get heavier industrial use there. Also, Alcorn State University’s MBA program is offered on the Natchez campus along with a great nursing program. Digital diagnostics is being pursued that especially relates to nursing.
Godfrey and Tipton say gaming fits well with the city’s tourism and welcome the additional venue.
“The Isle of Capri has been a good partner. Gaming has enhanced tourism and brought more people into town,” Godfrey said. “They eat in our restaurants and spend money with us.”
Tipton said, “Gaming fits well with our history. There was always gambling under the hill, and it’s had no negative impact on tourism.”
The administrator of Natchez Community Hospital and a chamber board member, Allen Tyra said he likes the added mix that gaming brings to local tourism and especially likes the renovated hotel and possible new restaurants the Emerald Star will bring.
Charles Cato, president of Emerald Star, said the 87,000-square-foot riverboat is complete and ready to put in place on the river below the Natchez bluffs where there will be on-site parking for 353 vehicles. The company purchased the Ramada Hilltop Inn and Briars Bed and Breakfast Inn. He said the 162-room Ramada will be renovated from top to bottom and kept open for business at all times.
The Briars is where Confederate President Jefferson Davis married Varina Howell. Cato said the property has been well maintained and no changes are planned other than cosmetic touch-ups.
“You will be able to see the boat from the hotel and the Briars,” he said. “Aesthetically, it’s one of the nicest views in Natchez and one of the best in Mississippi.”
He expects site work for the boat and the hotel remodeling to begin soon and should take six to eight months to complete.
“We’re very proud to be in Mississippi and Natchez,” he said. “Natchez is a special place in the entire country.” Cato is also part owner of Lighthouse Point Casino in Greenville.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.