Natchez’s new convention center modeled after Hattiesburg facility

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 14, 2000

Natchez Mayor F.L. “Hank” Smith, left, shakes hands with architect Johnny Waycaster in front of an artist’s rendition of the planned Natchez Convention Center. (The Vicksburg Post/JAMES WALKER)

NATCHEZ Three years after Vicksburg’s convention center opened its doors, officials in Natchez have broken ground on their own $10.5 million facility.

While taking cues from Vicksburg on the size and design of the new Natchez Convention Center, city leaders here hope to avoid some of the pitfalls that have plagued Vicksburg’s operation.

“I’m really looking at Vicksburg having trouble marketing its facility, and Hattiesburg being very successful,” Walter Tipton, director of the Natchez Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said at the Tuesday opening. “When we develop our marketing prototype, we’ll be modeling it after Hattiesburg.”

Vicksburg’s $12 million center, opened in August 1997, has yet to meet revenue projections and has only recently begun to develop a marketing strategy and spend money budgeted for advertising and marketing expenses.

Since taking the helm in June, Director Norman Ford has produced a brochure, television commercial and other marketing tools, but the sudden departure of the center’s sales manager last week may bring additional challenges.

At 57,000 square feet, Natchez’s planned center will be slightly larger than the one in Vicksburg. It will sit near the heart of downtown, at Main and Wall streets.

It will be located adjacent to a community events center that the city has fashioned out of a refurbished 1950s-era car dealership and a recently remodeled municipal auditorium.

Sue Stedman, a Natchez alderman who has been involved in the project, said the city has purchased another lot adjacent to the construction site and reserved it for a convention center hotel. The city plans to distribute requests for proposals from hotel companies soon.

“This is going to do a lot to stabilize our downtown area,” Stedman said.

Like Vicksburg, Natchez has been trying to revitalize its downtown, battling against empty storefronts and the lingering effects of a tornado which damaged some businesses three years ago.

Stedman said the process of bringing a convention center to Natchez has lasted more than a decade, mainly delayed by problems acquiring the land.

“We’ve looked forward to this for years and years,” she said.

“We’ve had task forces and committees and everything else, and it’s finally come to fruition.”

The Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, an arm of the city government, will be responsible for operating the center when it opens, planned for January 2002.

Tipton said the bureau already has a building maintenance staff at the visitor’s center, so the transition should be easy.

“We’ll start with the existing staff, and as we book more meetings, we’ll add additional staff,” he said.

In Vicksburg, meanwhile, city officials are turning away from city management of the convention center, hoping a private company can jump-start promotional efforts and insulate the center from politics.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen is in reviewing two bids from private management companies and could select one at any time.

Ford said he felt a new convention facility in Natchez could only enhance the drawing power of the entire state.

“I don’t consider it competition,” he said. “People won’t go to the same place every time. I don’t know if it will help us, but I don’t think it will hurt us.”

Ford said the Natchez team showed foresight in providing space for an attached hotel. Vicksburg has tried without success to attract a convention center hotel, and has put into place a shuttle arrangement with local hotels to compensate.

Lenore Barkley, head of Vicksburg’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed that development in Natchez is good for Vicksburg.

“We’ve always worked closely with them, and nine out of 10 visitors visit both cities,” Barkley said. “I say, the more the merrier.”

Carl Franco, a Vicksburg native and one of the architects who designed the Natchez center, said the facility was designed with the city’s historic character in mind.

While large and open on the inside, from the outside it will appear divided into several smaller facades that blend in with the downtown architecture, Franco said.

“It will be on a more pedestrian scale, more inviting than the other centers I’ve seen,” he said. “I think it will reflect the intimacy of Natchez.”

For Valorie Hill, who runs a coffee shop and linen store on Franklin Street, dubbed Antique Row by Natchezians, the convention center just a few blocks away is great news.

“I feel sure it will help the Natchez downtown area,” Hill said. “Plus, they’re talking about putting a big hotel down there. I’m sure some of those people will want to come over here and shop.”