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THE BUSINESS OF FEAR

Vicksburg’s Washington Street retailers confront threats real and imagined

Last week on Vicksburg’s Washington Street retail corridor, two different kinds of fears were taking hold.

The Ameristar Casino on Levee Street in Vicksburg may soon be under water as the Mississippi River continues to rise at record levels.

The Ameristar Casino on Levee Street in Vicksburg may soon be under water as the Mississippi River continues to rise at record levels.

One sprung from lost business due to tourist fears about the coming Mississippi River flood, which is expected to be the worst since 1927. The other dealt with a more tangible threat – the River itself.

At the bottom of Washington Street’s northern end sits Discount Furniture Barn, which Mary Landers’ family has operated since 1978. Less than 100 yards from the front door, the River rises, which is why Landers and a few helpers spent last Wednesday morning moving her entire inventory up to the building’s second floor. Hers is the only retail operation in Vicksburg that appears to have any sort of threat of taking on water.

Landers told a visiting reporter that when the River reaches 57 feet on the flood gauge, “the water will be at our front step.” The latest forecast for Vicksburg has the River cresting there at 57.5 feet on May 20. It’s not a matter of if Discount Furniture takes on water; it will be how much, and how long it stays once it arrives.

Landers’ store is in a particularly precarious position. Not only is she threatened to her immediate west by creeping water, the access road that elbows off Washington Street her customers use to get to her is in more immediate jeopardy of being overrun.

“I’ll just show up every day and hope the water hasn’t come across the road,” she said. “I was told it could happen (last weekend). I don’t know. I have no clue, because this is something nobody has ever experienced. If we do have to close (soon), then I’ll be down at least until May 20. If the water stays that high more than a week or so, I’ll be out a solid month. That’ll hurt me bad, not to mention the economy’s been terrible anyway.”

Straight up the bluff from Landers’ store, about a long tee shot away, sits Highway 61 Coffee. Owner Daniel Boone isn’t worried about his place taking on water. He shouldn’t be. If the River ever makes it up the bluff and into his shop, folks in Jackson will need to head to higher ground.

His fears are psychological. He’s worried tourists will be scared away because they’re under the impression all of Vicksburg is an aquarium.

“We’re one block from the canal,” Boone said. “But that block is almost vertical. We won’t have water anywhere near this place. It will be a block away, at the bottom of the hill. We went to New Orleans recently, and we run into people who hear ‘Vicksburg’ and ‘flood,’ and I have to keep telling people we can’t flood. It’s going to flood at the waterfront, but unlike every other town on the River in this part of the country, our elevation will protect us. I always tell people Texas will be underwater before we get any water in my building.”

Boone estimated that tourists account for about 20 percent of his overall business, with a lot of that being people visiting from Europe. He told a reporter he had just missed a couple from the Netherlands who had stopped in for a cup of coffee.

“I have a great group of regulars, and my business depends on regulars. But, we are in a good location, and it’s amazing the number of European tourists we see here in the coffeehouse. I’ve lived in this town all my life and I’ve been in retail for 40 years, but not until I got in the coffee business (five years ago) did I realize how many Europeans are coming here because they all are seeking out a cup of coffee. Coffee is very important to Europeans.”

Just as important to tourists from every corner of the world is staying out of harm’s way. According to Boone, the word is already getting out that the flood has made Vicksburg a dangerous place. He’s heard from his neighbors that tour groups have already canceled scheduled visits.

“There’s no reason not to come to Vicksburg,” Boone said, which is doing nothing to assuage his fears of a down tourist season. “We just don’t know what to expect. We don’t know how many people are going to be scared away. It’s just like the Gulf Coast last year (with the oil spill). There was this feeling of doom. There’s a lot of anxiety about it, just because of the uncertainty. Anything that’s out of the ordinary is automatically bad for business because it interrupts the routine.

“The 2008 flood didn’t make a dent. But this is the one that has the potential to frighten people. We’re not going to be affected by the flood, except psychologically. All you have to do is put the word Vicksburg in the story. That’s all it takes. No matter what you hear, it’s not going to flood in Vicksburg.”

Kim Hopkins shares Boone’s concern. She’s the executive director of the Vicksburg Main Street Program, and she had just returned from a Vicksburg-Warren County Port Commission meeting when she greeted a visitor in her office. She, too, has heard that tour groups have been canceling left and right.

“It wasn’t this bad in 2008,” she said. “We had almost no problems with that flood. But this water is coming up a lot quicker, and that’s scaring everybody. And then, of course, the news, I don’t think they mean to, but they make it sound like we are totally flooded. We are not underwater. We are flooding, but downtown is still open. The merchants are still there.

“We’re open,” she continued. “Come and help us keep the economy alive. Your heart goes out for the residents and businesses. You want to do all you can to help. It does make your job harder, but that’s just part of it. We’ll make it. Everybody’s helping each other. We’re tough.”

Related Video: Washington Street retailers speak out

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