November 2, 2013 10:07:46 PM
A consultant who works with municipal travel organizations across the country had several suggestions for Columbus and Lowndes County after gathering community input and observing the area.
One of Don Anderson's pitches last month to the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau was implementing a cultural heritage trail. Doing so would tie together the area's cultural assets, he said, by giving both tourists and residents a historical visual narrative for downtown and other areas.
CVB executive director Nancy Carpenter said the plan is to take Anderson's advice. Preliminary planning will begin soon, she said.
"This is such a warm and charming town and one of the things is that it's not all about the downtown. We're trying to help all of Columbus," Carpenter said. "We really don't take full advantage, nor do we appreciate what out-of-towners appreciate, because we're in the middle of it all the time. We are taking the advice of a professional consultant. Whether it's a culinary trail, architectural trail or a trail with an African-American emphasis in Columbus and Lowndes County, we are moving forward."
One Mississippi town with similar trails already in place is Natchez. Two nature trails lie along and on top of the bluff neighboring the Mississippi River, while two more direct visitors around the northern and southern portions of downtown Natchez. The trails consist of markers embedded in sidewalks with arrows pointing to historic buildings or sites where buildings once existed.
The trails became a reality through a partnership between the Historic Natchez Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi as part of a campaign to encourage walking. HNF executive director Mimi Miller said in helping to develop the trails, she wanted to be careful to have markers that would direct visitors around without going overboard with new additions to an old area.
"I didn't want to plaque up Natchez. I didn't want kiosks everywhere and banners flying," Miller said. "One of the greatest things about them is not only how much the visitors enjoy them...but it's amazing how much local people have enjoyed them and have taken ownership. It's created a greater appreciation of the town's history."
As for what she would recommend for Columbus, drawing attention to Columbus' businesses while providing visuals describing historical significance of certain locations is the combination needed to make the most out of the resource.
"I don't think I would lay out a specific trail," she said. "I would just put (markers) at the intersections. We've made sure everything that was open to the public in terms of an attraction was on the walking trail route where you went from one panel to another because it would help bolster their visitation. The design of the panel to some extent has to be based on where the panel is and where it can go. You have to lay them out on a map and let the person who has been working on them know that information to so that it's all incorporated at once."
Darrell White, director of cultural heritage tourism for the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, echoed that the trails, which opened in 2010, have been an asset.
"It has turned the downtown Natchez into a museum of the streets," White said. "You can walk the trail on any day. It's a definite plus because it's something that a visitor to your community can do independently. You just point them in a direction and get them started. Some of the historic structures still stand. In some areas, the building itself may be gone but there are images of what had formerly been there on those panels. You do get somewhat of an idea."
Chuck Yarborough, local historian and history teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, said locations such as the Riverwalk, Seventh Avenue North and the newly re-opened historic Tennessee-Tombigbee River Bridge are possible locations to highlight.
"The river played a huge role in historic development not only of Columbus but of the region," Yarborough said. "It seems to me it would be pretty easy to have historians or possibly even students from the W or Mississippi State researching and writing the panels or markers that could tell that story and could be placed along the Riverwalk. Then the Riverwalk could be not only a wellness experience but a cultural experience as well."
He added that historic areas could have panels that tell stories on the significance of certain businesses or locations that played a part in making Columbus what it was in the past.
"In Columbus we think of the historic part of the town being downtown, but the same type of thing could be done on Seventh Avenue North," he said. "These are places that have cultural and political and social significance. It could become part of a larger series of trails that explore the culture and history of the community."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.