For nearly 20 years, the Natchez-Adams County Port, the industrial base of the area, bled jobs. In 2003 alone, nearly 600 workers were displaced when International Paper shuttered its mill after more than 50 years in operation.
In total, the port lost 1,500-1,800 jobs over that time frame, and while tourism remains the area’s number one industry, the city and county fully felt the impact of the loss of jobs and tax revenue.
However, the port is showing signs of recovery. Over the last 24 months, area officials have made seven major announcements of new tenants or expansions/infrastructure improvements, including arguably its most ambitious effort — the purchase of the the former IP site.
“We have been very aggressive,” said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc., the lead economic development organization for Natchez and Adams County. He said total committed investment in the park is $930 million, of which “$200 million has already hit the ground.”
In terms of jobs, the projects are expected to create 1,000 new jobs, and 210 of those jobs have been realize to dated.
“We have had some success, but we still have a long way to go to replace all those jobs we lost,” he said.
The port’s rebirth is evident immediately by the new port connector road. Begun in 2011, the nearly $4-million road cut some two miles off the existing route and was a key selling point in landing Elevance Renewable Sciences.
In June 2011, Elevance acquired the Delta BioFuels facility with plans to convert it into a biorefinery and derivatives operation. The total capital investment is $225 million, and 30 of the projected 165 new jobs have been filled.
Crews are currently working on the port’s new liquid loading dock. A $4-million structure, it got underway in January and is scheduled to be completed before the end of the year.
There is also major railroad construction underway. In May, Genesis Energy announced plans to more than double its railcar capacity at its port terminal while the company was still in phase one of a previously announced expansion. Work is continuing on a second rail spur that will allow two-way rail traffic as well as steaming racks that will heat chemicals to allow for loading and unloading of the railcars.
Between the liquid loading dock and railroad projects, work is almost complete on a new frac sand transmodal facility. The $37-million project is 95 percent complete.
Another expansion is underway at Enersteel, a manufacturer of tanks and vessels. This marks the second expansion of Enersteel’s facility at the Natchez-Adams County Port in as many years.
The latest coup for the port was finding a new tenant for the former Mississippi River Pulp (formerly Mississippi River Corporation). Late last year, the company announced it would cease operations and leave nearly 80 workers jobless. Quickly posting the vacancy, the building became the center of a bidding war between prospective companies. The winner was von Drehle Corporation, a North Carolina-based, privately held paper products manufacturer.
von Drehle is investing $100 million in the facility, and has hired approximately 30 workers let go by Mississippi River Pulp. It expects to eventually have 100 employees on the payroll.
The land for the proposed $400-million KiOR biofuel plant has been cleared and engineering work is underway. However, the company said last month it needs data from its new refinery in Columbus before it can start to raise funding for the Natchez site.
The site will require a ring levee as it was inundated during the historic flood of 2011.
“If (KiOR) doesn’t come, it just means we have more work to do,” Russ said matter of faculty.
The biggest and newest project underway involves the old IP site. Closed in 2003, it was purchased by the alternative fuels company Rentech in 2007. But the company could not get the massive, 478-acre site up and running.
Earlier this month, Adams County purchased the property for $9.25 million.
“It is the best big site on the entire river. I firmly believe that,” Russ said.
The site includes nine water wells, 17.5 miles of natural gas lines and a wastewater facility with a capacity to process 40 million gallons per day and numerous other buildings and assets.
“To put the wastewater facility’s capacity in perspective, the facility can handle eight times more wastewater than the city of Natchez’s facility. That facility alone could cost $70 million to build, and it’s already here,” Russ said.
The railroad has claimed a piece of the property for proposed new infrastructure. After it decides what it wants, Natchez Inc. plans to conduct a master plan, develop a name and logo and begin marketing the site within approximately 90 days.