By John Mott Coffey, with News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ
NATCHEZ, Miss.–Natchez aldermen and the mayor want the community’s chief business recruiter to pay closer attention to getting more retailers to town and not put too much emphasis on industries creating jobs.
“We’ve got to have a more balanced effort for jobs,'” Mayor Butch Brown told Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ at a meeting Monday. The mayor said employment growth in the retail, tourism and health-care sectors is just as important as industrial job creation.
Russ said he and the Natchez Inc. board know that.
“I don’t think this group is not recognizing that community,” said Russ, acknowledging those non-industrial enterprises are “as important to me as anything we do.” He suggested a study could be done on how to boost non-industrial employment in Natchez and Adams County.
In highlighting economic growth since Natchez Inc. was formed in 2009, he pointed to 560 manufacturing jobs created or planned and $500 million in industrial investments underway or fulfilled. That was largely done under the auspices of the Adams County Board of Supervisors, which is more plugged into the various incentives and land that can be offered to lure new industries.
Monday’s meeting was prompted by city aldermen wanting to be included more in Natchez Inc.’s efforts and to be more aggressive in filling empty business spaces downtown, at Natchez Mall and in other commercial areas. Alderman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who pushed for the meeting with Russ, said she doesn’t want Natchez Mall to suffer the same crumbling fate as Tracetown shopping center and its now-demolished anchor Sears.
“Every time I see that piece of concrete, it aggravates me,” she said. “I really wouldn’t want to see that same piece of slab on John R. Junkin Drive” at Natchez Mall.
However, Brown highlighted what he depicted as a boom in business and jobs in Natchez since he took office in 2012.
While he said the 560 industrial jobs recently created is laudable, he boasted that 600 new jobs have been created within the city limits, and “those are good jobs too.”
New stores have recently opened or are about to. He cited the Cash Saver grocery store at Magnolia Mall, a Family Dollar store on Martin Luther King Street, dental clinics and various fast-food restaurants.
While the Eola — downtown Natchez’s landmark hotel — went out of business in December, he noted efforts are underway to get that redeveloped. Talks are underway to also establish a small boutique hotel in Natchez.
He also noted sales tax collections have grown in the past couple of years.
“These things just don’t happen out of the blue,” Brown said. We (city officials) are out there hustling people to expand their businesses.”
The community’s loss of population in recent years precipitated Natchez Inc.’s mission when it was created six years ago to grow the city and county’s economy, Russ said.
“Population loss is what really drove Natchez Inc.,” he said. That “is probably the key statistic that’s hurting us.”
Natchez Inc. has an annual budget of about $420,000, with funds allocated by the city and county boards and Natchez Now, a private-sector group. Russ said this budget is smaller than other similar business-development groups in Mississippi. He noted the agency actually had a budget deficit two years in a row recently from expenses it encountered to keep the railroad to and from Natchez from being abandoned.