Stanton Hall, by Mark Coffey
Look past the white columns and the pink azaleas, and it quickly becomes clear that Natchez, Miss., is more than a pretty face.
Like fiction’s Scarlett O’Hara, the Mississippi River town of 27,000 is a Southern belle with a strong personality and a good bit of business acumen.
Natchez was once the country’s richest city, home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Civil War, coupled with the collapse of cotton, left Natchez a shadow of its former self. In that period, the city also lost many of its fine homes, described by Mimi Miller, head of Historic Natchez, as the country’s “greatest collection of white-columned mansions,” the result of planters trying to outdo one another.
Natchez’s revival was ignited by an unlikely crowd: garden club ladies who, in 1932, decided to host a spring tour of antebellum homes. For a month in the spring and two weeks in the fall, the Natchez Pilgrimage, as the tour is known, has since brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. The city still has 600 antebellum mansions, most in private hands, and the Pilgrimage is the chance to see more than two dozen of them.
About 10 years ago, the city made another fortuitous move when it built a convention center in its well-preserved downtown. A modern hotel built across the street five years ago completed the package.
Since then, there’s been a steady stream of state and regional conventions finding their way to southwest Mississippi, enjoying a town that Miller’s daughter once called “an urban Tom Sawyer experience.” Others liken it to a miniature New Orleans.
“You can walk out the front door [of the convention center] when the day is over and walk to a variety of great local restaurants, sports bars, historic buildings and places to shop,” said Miller. “The convention center is one block from the river.”
For pub crawls or lunch breaks, there are some dozen downtown restaurants, among them Biscuits and Blues, Pearl Street Pasta, Cotton Alley Cafe, the Pig Out Inn and Planet Thailand.
CVB adds vibrance
The Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau is known for concocting ways to add local color to meetings.
As an example, the CVB pulled out the stops for 225 attendees of the Mississippi Society of Association Executives (MSAE).
“They got us in the door of places that I would never have gotten into,” said Amy Wilson, president of Wilson Events and Management in Madison, Miss.
One of those places was a privately owned club, where the group made a stop during a pub crawl that wended its way through downtown streets blocked off just for its party.
That’s not atypical, according to Walter Tipton, who manages the convention center and the Grand, the convention center hotel.
“Down in front of the hotel, there’s a street called Broadway that we have blocked off for the American Legion or the Lions Club if they wanted to have a concert or a picnic on the bluff, right on the banks of the Mississippi River.”
The bureau also has no problem finding homeowners who will open their mansions for events.
Among Natchez’s signature events is a reception at its visitors center. Local restaurants and shopkeepers bring in food and wares; guests have a chance to see the $1 million worth of exhibits and river views that make the center “more than a place to grab a Coke and use the restroom,” said Selah Havard, executive director of the Natchex CVB.
From there, attendees can take off on tours of Natchez’s story-filled cemetery as MSAE did. The CVB outfitted attendees with light-up drink cups and glow bands.
The MSAE conference has already spurred three other meetings for Natchez, among them the Mississippi Nurses Association’s centennial. Events and continuing education coordinator Angela Weathersby said many of her ideas for the nurses’ celebration came from the MSAE conference.