Historic preservation sees ups and downs in Natchez

NATCHEZ — Though smokestacks gave way to tourism, it wasn’t a particularly good decade for the topic at the heart of Natchez’s tourism market — historic preservation.

A September 2002 fire, reportedly caused by an electrical short, destroyed the attic of the antebellum mansion Arlington and caused smoke and water damage throughout the then-184-year-old house.

Arlington never recovered, and many of the city’s treasured preservation efforts followed the same path.

This decade saw piece-by-piece destruction of the former First Baptist Church and, this year, its demolition.

The historic pecan factory was bulldozed in 2006 on an order of the mayor, despite an attorney general’s stop-work order. The destruction came a year after the city signed a deal with condo developers interested in building on the site.

Discussions and debates over the design of the condos followed. The project was never started.

An existing sign ordinance became unimportant in the eyes of many city leaders, and few of its rules were ever enforced.

The board of aldermen changed height ordinances on downtown businesses and wrote themselves into the process for appeals on preservation commission decisions, angering preservation supporters.

The city had five city planners in 10 years, including three who were fired.

Turnover in the planning office worries Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

“The strongest communities in the state have the strongest planning departments,” she said. “I look upon strong city planning as economic development. Look at Madison and its rules and regulations and look at where it is today.

“(Madison) is where everyone wants to live, and where everyone wants to live is where business wants to follow.”

Natchez still has its key elements that will sustain it, Miller said.

“You can’t make a historic town or a scenic view,” she said. “You can make a Disney World, but you can’t make what we have. It will pay its dividends.”

And the decade certainly wasn’t all bad.

The William Johnson House — a part of the Natchez National Historical Park highlighting the life of a freed black man in pre-Civil War Natchez — opened in 2004 and has benefited from being nearby the Natchez Convention Center, National Park Service Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins said.

The same year an exhibit, small as it may be, was put up at the Fork of the Road slave-trading site.

Since that time the Park Service has worked alongside the city to develop future, larger, plans for the site.

In 2007 a newly restored Memorial Hall opened as the new federal courthouse, bringing not only history, but jobs. The decade also saw an influx of outsiders interested in preserving the history of the town.

“As some of the composition of Natchez begins to change we are seeing more people move in from places like the Mississippi coast and California,” Jenkins said. “Those people are coming here because Natchez has the character Natchez has. They are becoming very ardent historic preservationists.”

And a focus on historic preservation is not a cold shoulder to industry, Miller said.

“I don’t think by any sense (tourism) is everything we should have,” Miller said. “I don’t think there is anyone that wants industry more than a community-minded person interested in historic preservation.”

Julie Cooper/The Natchez Democrat