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Vicksburg’s business community returning to some normalcy

The first week of May, business owners along Vicksburg’s Washington Street corridor were preparing for the Mississippi River to unleash a flood the likes of which the city hadn’t seen since 1927.

They were also preparing for a slow-to-non-existent summer tourist season. Nearly three months later, the water has receded, and the bulk of the summer has passed. The results were mixed, with the water’s threat contributing to a bump in business before the bottom fell out in June.

Daniel Boone, who owns Highway 61 Coffeehouse on the northern end of Washington Street, said there was a strange dynamic in May: As the water levels a few hundred yards out his front door rose to a crest of 57.1 feet, so did traffic at his coffee shop.

“During the high water, business was great,” Boone told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview last week. “We had so many people coming to see the really dramatic view of the flood that was basically across the street from us. We had lots of media and lots of just sight-seers. That was great for a week and a half.”

It didn’t last. Once the river reached its crest, the rubberneckers who had flocked to Vicksburg to catch a glimpse had lost interest. “The novelty was gone,” Boone said. Also gone was a lot of the out-of-town business Boone said makes up about 20 percent of his overall take.

The malaise extended through June, and Boone’s fears of the high water scaring away tourists – even though the rural areas outside the city limits were the areas affected the most – were realized. The busloads of tourists that show up to gamble at Vicksburg’s casinos – only one of which was closed – and to patronize the local businesses that make up the Washington Street area disappeared. Boone said June was “way down” from previous years. “What I was mainly concerned about was that people, especially foreign travelers, when they had travel plans, were going to see the news and cancel their plans, and that’s what happened.”

July, though, has offered hope. The same international travelers who stayed away in June have started to trickle back in, Boone said. Within the past week and a half he has had customers from Romania, Germany and England in for a cup of coffee.

“That’s always my gauge on (Vicksburg’s tourism economy) is the international people we get in here,” Boone said. “We’re in a down economy, so we’re just looking for degrees (of upward movement). We do feel like it’s started to turn back up a little bit, even though the hot summer here is never that great for a coffeehouse anyway. I think we’ve already maybe seen the worst of it.”

Down the hill from Highway 61 Coffeehouse, the worst of the flooding is over for Mary Landers. Whether the worst of its effects have passed is still unsettled. Discount Furniture Barn, which has been in Landers’ family since the 1970s, closed completely for a month, Landers said, its access road that runs parallel to the riverbank submerged. It reopened right after the Fourth of July.

Two weeks before she had to close her store, Landers said the access road was impassable, so even though she was open, her customers had trouble reaching her. The same was true nearly two weeks after she opened back up.

““Everybody knows how bad the economy has been,” she said last week. “And this certainly didn’t help me any.”

Landers said her building did not take on any water, but it came within two feet at the front door and one foot at the back door. The 57.1 foot crest was a touch lower than the National Weather Service’s original estimate.

““If it had crested at 57.5 feet it would have been in the building,” she said. “I was very lucky. Loss of business is the biggest deal. I guess we’re back to normal. It’s still slow, but it’s been slow for some time now. I’ve had some foot traffic, but it’s not like it used to be. That’s everywhere, though, not just me.”

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