Downtown Jackson is in the middle of a hidden economic renaissance. This growth will be hard-pressed to continue unless city and state leaders commit to the new mantra of economic development: Jobs follow people.
Let's start with a history lesson. We all know that Jackson, like most cities, hemorrhaged people over the past three decades due to suburbanization. In 1980, Jackson hit its peak population (202,895), but by 2010 the census recorded a loss of approximately 30,000 people—a 15 percent decrease. During the same time, its suburbs grew by more than 43 percent. Population analysis, however, is not the only way to examine growth and decline, especially in downtown areas where, historically, few people live. A unique factor—high-rise building construction—is a much better tool.
During the pre-Depression period (1923-1930), downtown Jackson built a new high-rise building every 1.8 years. After World War II, the city saw a new high-rise building every 3.3 years.
Then, it suddenly stopped in the '70s, when the effect of suburbanization hit downtown. Despite being a relatively economically prosperous period (1975-2012), the city saw only two new high-rise buildings go up downtown: one every 18.5 years.
So, the history of high-rise construction sings the same song of decline as Jackson's population loss, right?
Well, not exactly. When you count full-scale renovations, the numbers reveal a hidden renaissance happening before our eyes.
Since 2006, downtown Jackson has renovated eight of its 16 high-rise buildings, averaging a new renovation every eight months. Analyzing all renovations and new construction completed between 2005 and 2011, I found an even more convincing statistic: Every three months, downtown Jackson built a new building or renovated an old one. And much of this development happened during the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Since 2005, investors have injected more than $500 million into downtown.
Why are people pouring money into Downtown Jackson? First, in 2006, the state Legislature created historic tax credits that augmented the federal historic credits launched in the late 1970s. This made building renovations in downtown financially viable. The first to capitalize on these incentives was the Electric 308 Building.
Second, downtowns nationwide experienced huge growth during the 2000s by responding to the demand of urban living. They converted shabby office buildings and dilapidated factories into residential spaces.
Few people thought this strategy would work in Jackson. "Who wants to live downtown?" skeptics asked. The answer: a lot of people, apparently. Apartments in the King Edward and Standard Life currently boast nearly 100 percent occupancy rates and waiting lists longer than a year.
The third reason—public officials recognizing the new nature of economic development—holds the key to regional competitiveness for Jackson and Mississippi.
One of the old conundrums of cities is this: Cities are good places to work, but bad places to live. This logic derives from the viewpoint that the clustering of people in cities is good for production (increases in businesses' productivity) and bad for consumption (increase in congestion, pollution, crime, etc.) This old concept no longer governs the primary way cities operate.
In today's knowledge-driven economy, the success of cities hinges more and more on cities' roles as centers of consumption. In other words, cities are not only good places to work today, but also good places to live.
This understanding has several implications: (1) that urban amenities matter; (2) urban amenities attract human capital; and (3) amenity cities are economically successful. Mountains of academic research support these implications, which are exacerbated by the fact that businesses are increasingly becoming more mobile than people.
In other words, it's becoming easier for a business to move from one place to another than it is for a person. This new reality inverts an old tenet of economic development—that people follow jobs. These days, jobs follow people.
For continued growth and economic development, we must retain our local human capital and prevent brain drain. But spending millions of dollars each year hoping to lure large businesses into the state is no longer the best solution.
To retain and attract human capital, you have to know what people demand. Studies by prominent scholars such as Richard Florida, Alan Ehrenhalt, Arthur C. Nelson, Eugenie Birch and Christopher Leinberger demonstrate that people—young and old—increasingly desire urban amenities: short commutes to work, a variety of restaurants, a walkable environment, beautiful public spaces and good public services.
As Mississippi's only true urban fabric, Jackson is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the new economic reality. It all starts with our leaders inculcating the importance of investing in people rather than merely the prospect of business. Harvard economist Edward Gleaser conveys this idea concisely in his book "The Triumph of the City" when he says, "[T]he best economic development strategy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way."
Matt Bolian is a full-time redhead, Christian, husband, Army officer and property developer who loves dreaming big.