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Natchez Inc. review presented

NATCHEZ — Natchez and Vidalia both have strengths that could further economic development in the region, one of them being a unique creative economy with filmmakers, artists, novelists and musicians, an economic development consultant told community leaders Thursday.

More than 100 Miss-Lou community stakeholders gathered at the Natchez Convention Center on Thursday for the unveiling of an economic development assessment of the region with Natchez Inc.

In September, Natchez Inc., which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, hired VisionFirst Advisors — an economic development consulting company with centers in Florida and Jackson — to perform their assessment and help create a community strategy and plan of action to drive economic development forward for the next decade.

“We’re thrilled to have with us today to present this assessment Kathy Gelston and Greg Word,” said Natchez Inc. Executive Director, Chandler Russ. “Both of these individuals have a long background in many different aspects of economic development.”

In addition to having a creative economy, the community also is actively working to build a workforce through education and job certification programs, Gelston said.

Word, a VisionFirst Senior Consultant, said the company started by “doing their homework” on the area — gathering data about the population, workforce, salaries and living costs within a 45-minute drive from the epicenter of Adams County and Concordia Parish.

“We get to know you and have our perceptions of you, but a lot of times we sit back and pull data on you,” Word said. “… There are no county lines or community lines. We really take a look at you from a regional perspective.”

VisionFirst later hosted a series of meetings at Natchez Inc. headquarters with community leaders and stakeholders and asked them all questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the area.

VisionFirst then launched an online survey with Natchez Inc. to gather input from nearly 350 individuals in the community.

“A lot of you forget how far you’ve come in 10 years,” Gelston said. “It doesn’t always seem like it from home because everything is incremental. You don’t see how much better off you are now than you were 10 years ago. When I look at this from a state perspective and think about the state that Natchez was in 10 years ago when Natchez Inc began to now, you have made tremendous progress.”

Gelston said when local stakeholders were asked what their weaknesses were involving economic development, most had the same answer.

“It was amazing to me how many of you said ‘We don’t have a common vision.’ That’s not unusual, but its definitely something that you can work on,” Gelston said. “… There is definitely a lack of a common vision, and I wish that I could tell you this was unusual but it’s not. Everyone thinks, ‘All we need to do is this.’ Nobody thinks about what that costs, how long it takes and who else has to be involved.”

Many of the other roadblocks locals said were preventing economic growth in the Miss-Lou are the same issues plaguing rural communities throughout the nation — loss of a young workforce, population decline, lack viable “shovel-ready” sites to attract industrial developers, Gelston said.

“A good economic developer doesn’t say, ‘If you locate here we’ll give you such and such incentives,’” she said. “A good economic developer says ‘Here is the value of this particular site.”

There are ways for Natchez Inc. to improve, particularly through better marketing and communication with the community and community stakeholders so that everyone shares a common vision for and perception of economic growth in their region, Gelston said.

“It’s really easy to identify all the challenges that you have and not address it,” Gelston said. “I’m encouraged by the number of people here today. … You have the ‘want to’ to help the community. You also have to fight the perception that nothing positive has happened over the past 10-years.”

Word said that Natchez Inc. takes the lead on how to grow the number of jobs, average wages, and incentives in the area. Natchez Inc. relies on arms within the community to improve business environments, marketing and the workforce, Word said.

“There are some things that Natchez Inc. owns and there are other things that they can facilitate and advocate for,” Word said. “… (Natchez Inc.) has three staffers. They have to have community partners.”