Riverland Medical Center should start construction on its new hospital in the Spring
by Peter Rinaldi
has been a curious year for news stories in the Miss-Lou, a time when the contrast between Natchez-Adams County and Vidalia-Concordia Parish is more apparent than usual. The communities are separated by a bridge of just 4,202 feet, but the way they have operated
this year shows they are miles and miles apart in the quality of leadership.
Let's talk about the good news for Vidalia and Concordia Parish. Now that Riverland Medical
Center has its financing in place for the new hospital, construction should begin this coming spring. The impact of the new hospital will be more than you might think. Expect hospital revenues to rise to more than $25 million a year in just a few years. That
means a massive improvement in services and technology, a larger payroll and a positive impact on the life of the parish and the entire Miss-Lou. This is a long-term commitment by the parish police jurors and the hospital board members, a complete readjustment
of medical care in the parish for this generation and the next. Special commendation should be given to Jim Graves, Billy Rucker and Sam Ellard for their work on this important project.
Public and private hospitals can be the centers of their communities, just like Merit is in Natchez (and like Regional and Community used to be). A solid healthcare system usually provides the highest-paying jobs in a small community.
The good economic news continued with the signings of Vidalia Denim for the old Fruit-of-the-Loom plant and Syrah Resources for LAEL site. Mayor Buz Craft led a team effort to push the companies
to locate here.
Both signings have generated some controversy. Vidalia Denim's chief entrepreneur has had some difficulty executing his business plans in the past. But with
a major bank-investor package behind the company, Vidalia Denim should get underway. Additionally, Vidalia taxpayers have been and will be paid well for the sale of the building and future taxes, plus the sale of utility services to the new industry.
Syrah Resources will be taking over the former rubber recycler's location, retooling the plant to help generate spherical graphite for electric car batteries. This project has also
been controversial, because some of our local environmentalists have gone overboard and apoplectic worrying about water and air discharges, uranium content, etc.
Unfortunately, many of the local opponents to Syrah don't know what they're talking about when it comes to mining, graphite or industrial production. The plant must be permitted by both the state and the feds and meet safety, clean
water and clean air regulations that are detailed and specific. If you research Syrah, based in Australia, you'll find this mining company has a good track record economically and is a good citizen. Syrah's planned location here is a beneficial outcome for
Vidalia. Whether the company can make a profit in fabrication manufacturing is a separate issue.
And while the talk has been so positive about 300 jobs or more from
the two plants, don't hold your breath on the numbers. Companies often overstate the number of jobs that will be created. We will know in a year or two whether the rosy estimates are true or a bit of fibbing.
For Natchez, it's been a troubled year. The mayor and board of aldermen completely mishandled the waste contract issue, going into secret session, violating the public meetings law and then delivering a contract to ratepayers that increased
rates by about 30%. The waste contract was handled so poorly that many citizens thought the mayor, city attorney and aldermen acted both ineptly and corruptly. Whether you measure the politicians' intent or not, the public relations aspect was a disaster.
City leaders started off by forgetting they had a waste contract to renew and then things got worse from there. It was a disaster to remember, a total mess-up.
goings-on raised the issue of Mayor's Grennell's administrative competence, as did the way he handled the firing of his assistant, Temple Hendricks, and the forced retirement of the fire chief, Aaron Wesley. Both terminations made citizens question the mayor's
communication, public relations and leadership skills, which seemed to desert him when he needed them greatly. The frequent changeover of staff at city hall hasn't helped either. Being mayor of Natchez tends to expose a person's character in a way that AdamsCounty
government does not. A mayor is more under the spotlight than a supervisor. Perhaps Darryl is the great leader. Perhaps not.
Obviously, the top story of the year is Natchez's
crime wave. We've all lost count, but there have been nine murders this year and several dozen shootings, which included the wounding of many people. Not only are gang murders and shootings the new style of the town, but break-ins and property crimes continue
almost unabated. According to FBI and U.S. Department of Justice statistics, Natchez ranks in the bottom 4% of safe communities. That means that 96% of cities in the U.S. are safer than Natchez.
See the website neighborhoodscout.com for more information. The percentages relate to occurrence of crime in numbers per thousands of residents. Obviously, a city like Chicago has more actual killings, shootings and property crimes than Natchez.
But the rate of crime is a true measure of the community's safety. For example, Chicago is in the bottom 8% of safe cities, which means, by occurrence per thousand residents, Natchez is less safe than Chicago.
This is not a new phenomenon for our city. The rate of crime has been increasing through the Jake Middleton and Butch Brown administrations. City leaders saw fit to retire two police
chiefs since those days. But protection from criminals in our city appears to be sketchy at best.
Not all the crime is drug-related, though most is so. We have a new class of professional killers and gang-bangers ready to do battle. Take a look at the Natchez gangsters' YouTube videos. They tell all. Many of the victims are
not fellow criminals. Many are innocent persons mowed down in error or persons whose sin was to have a verbal argument or confrontation with the shooter. Armed and unarmed robberies have also increased, as have break-ins to cars, homes and businesses.
What's surprising is how Natchez leaders have not risen to the occasion to fight this crime wave. This year, the city did give its cops a minor raise but deleted two positions to fund
the budget burp. That's all city hall has done. Shockingly, alderman and former cop Billie Joe Frazier said he wasn't going to take any responsibility as alderman for the crime wave. At an aldermen's meeting, he said the fault lies with parents who did not
raise their kids right.
Surely, some parents are responsible for poor parenting. But many of the shooters and break-in artists are actually in their 20s and 30s. How long
are you supposed to be responsible for your criminal kid?
It is also the city's responsibility to provide for public safety, including police (and fire) protection. Therefore,
it is the responsibility of the mayor, the aldermen and Billy Joe to improve public safety when it is lacking. It would be hard to be critical of the city leaders if they had tried some initiatives to curb crime and then failed. At least, citizens could say
they tried. But so far, the Grennell administration has done little or nothing to counter the crime wave.
I would suggest a change in tactical policing could be one response
and adoption of "the broken windows theory" of crime fighting is needed. See wikipedia.com for an explanation of how this theory affects the practice of policing.
You can't make the changes necessary for public safety without money. A generation ago, Natchez committed to expanding its governmental focus beyond police, fire, streets, seniors center, water works, etc. The amount committed
to tourism and convention center development was increased by more than 700% over the years and exceeds the amount spent on the police department and police protection.
Tourism and conventions were seen as the rising tide to lift the economic boat. That did not happen, of course, because the money spent on those enterprises could not counteract the outflow of residents and economic decline caused by the loss of IP-Fidelity
and industrial jobs.
The city, when it did have extra money, used it for overall payroll increases, health insurance costs and some pet political projects, like the pool.
But the police department was left to languish. City-county leaders took some solace in the fact that while the police department wasn't that great, the sheriff's office was pretty good. So city policing took a back-burner priority.
We can see what happened as a result. Not only does the open warfare in town cost lives, it damages the community's reputation. Almost every shooting and killing is reported to the Associated Press. It's not just
a local story. The message is Natchez is a dangerous place. And the message is accurate and not overstated. Right now, fighting crime is a lot more important that Depot contracts, waste hauling, statues or downtown development schemes. Do city leaders see
With all deference due to Mayor Grennell for his group harmony and Kumbaya speeches, crime is ruining this town.
And it's up to the mayor, aldermen and police chief to remedy the problem now. This is their primary task, their top priority. And what they attempt to do should be communicated to the public.
We should ask the question why crime happens less often in rural Adams County, outside of the city limits than inside. What is it that Sheriffs Patten, Mayfield, Brown and Ferrell did that made their departments more successful than the city
PD in keeping us safe?
I would suggest the city's style and tactics of law enforcement needs to change. We should
demand a plan and expect results or get new officeholders who will actually attempt to stem the tide of violent and property crime.
In future commentaries both in
print and online, I'll discuss what should be done tactically. In the meantime, Grennell and his cohorts at city hall need to come up with their own plan.