Amile Wilson can often be spotted around Jackson with a camera in his hand. In truth, Wilson has got his hands in a lot more than just photography.
A graduate of Belhaven University, Wilson runs two publications--Mississippi Aesthetic, a free arts magazine, and Mississippi Attorney-at-Law Magazine, the local franchise of Attorney-at-Law, a national magazine. He also runs Hapax Creative, a firm that does photography, video production, graphic and web design, and manages investments for creative projects, including one planned for Jackson next year.
"We need someone on the council who understands the creative economy, who can provide both leadership and oversight so that Jackson's able to get the best deal out of each project and grow," he said.
In a recent interview, Wilson, 29, talked to the Jackson Free Press about the creative economy as economic development, addressing infrastructure and improving the capital city's image.
You own a couple of businesses. If you could give the highlights on everything that you do.
Everything that we do is centered around media and communications. We do marketing and advertising for companies and politicians. We also manage investments.
What's the name of the company?
That's under Hapax Creative. We own the Mississippi Aesthetic magazine (and) Mississippi Attorney-at-Law Magazine. We're also managing venture capital that is all centered around the creative economy. So we just did a $3 million project in Malaysia. We're getting ready next year to do a project in Jackson and one in Clarksdale. So it's all taking venture capital money and investing it in films and real estate and different things that go with the creative economy.
This is all under the Hapax umbrella or they separate ventures?
It's all separate interests. ... Every new project is a new LLC—for liability reasons, for partnership reasons. So if you want to get technical, I'm involved in, like, 18 different LLCs, but it's all under the umbrella of Chimneyville Films and Hapax Creative.
So what's the project you're planning for Jackson?
It's a joint film and real-estate development that involves some major players that I can't name.
We were talking earlier about all the film stuff going on in Mississippi. It doesn't seem like the city has capitalized, from an official government position. Do you see that as opportunity for you on the city council?
One of the reasons I wanted to get in this race is the mayor's attention towards the creative economy. I work in the creative economy. I'm used to reading contracts. I'm used to reviewing contracts. I'm used to investing money in that. We need someone on the council who understand the creative economy, who can provide both leadership and oversight so that Jackson's able to get the best deal out of each project and grow.
How would you manage potential conflicts between your own businesses and items that might come before the council (in terms of creative projects)?
There's a fine line, but anybody who really wants this and is wanting to do something for Jackson is going to run into times where they have a little bit of conflict. It's about being upfront. It's about knowing where the line and making sure you don't cross it. There's so much happening in Jackson that I don't mind a conflict popping up here and there because there's so much that I'm not involved in.
Where are the creative economy opportunities?
Film, obviously. Everybody talks about Farish Street, which has been such an up and down project but there were problems with the contract from the word go.
You mean the original 1997 contract or the later agreement with Farish Street Group?
Farish Street Group. For one, the oversight from the National Historical Society. When (David) Watkins said they have to have approval ... and he just started listing elements, you knew the bureaucracy was so deep that the project was going to struggle because there was so much bureaucracy. The One Lake project. Let me tell you something—that's got creative economy, that's got tourism and flood control.
I grew up in a neighborhood when I couldn't get home from school because cars couldn't get through the street. That was done because of poor planning. Eubanks Creek flooded. It floods because the city went in and expanded upstream. What happens when you renovate and expand upstream and do nothing downstream? More water, more cubic feet coming down than downstream can handle. It's like a funnel that you're pouring too fast. So Fondren flooded repeatedly. The city couldn't do anything about it because they didn't have the budget to renovate the rest Eubanks Creek. So you had flooding for weeks. We were fortunate. We were one of maybe two houses on street that didn't get water. But it totaled out three of our cars and plus it was inconvenient and housing prices plummeted because no one wants to buy a house that's flooded three times. And that was just poor planning on the part of the city.
You've seen what's being proposed for the Lake and you like what you see?
I love what I see. I think there are tweaks. People forget that the Ross Barnett Reservoir was done with private money and it was done for flood control and it was great at the time. I think the One Lake project is a great opportunity for the city.
(Editor's note: Construction of the Ross Barnett reservoir was funded with bonds that ad valorem taxes eventually paid off in 1992, according to a 2004 Joint Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review report).
Does the council need to have a more hands-on approach to Farish Street? Does the Jackson Redevelopment Authority need to be dissolved, which is something that comes up periodically?
I think a big part of the council is oversight, but that's a big part of the council's job period. The mass of the job of the council is oversight. A big part of it is picking up the phone and calling private businesses and calling companies and asking them to come down and look to invest. Southwest Airlines is a great example. Southwest Airlines was going to skip over Jackson way back when it first came here. And members of the government, along with private business leaders called Southwest's corporate headquarters, they flew those guys down, they showed them around the city and they actively pitched the city of Jackson to Southwest and that's why Southwest came. What we need from the council is people with energy, the resources and the connections to work with private businesses to actively pitch elements of the city.
You often hear that Jackson isn't business friendly. There are lot of businesses in Ward 1. What's your assessment of the city's business climate?
There are problems. One of them is water. (Another is) taxes. Some of the red tape. Quite frankly, there's a lot of confusion in setting up businesses: How do I set one up, do I have to file for a business permit? If I do, how do I classify my business? There needs to be more of a hands on approach from the executive branch reaching out to nurture business. We've got to lower taxes. Private business doesn't want to pay the sewage taxes that we have. That's a big cost. The water problems, with boil water notices and things like that. That costs businesses.
It costs the city, too. How do you address the infrastructure problems, but also give business a break on paying fees?
Under the (Harvey) Johnson administration, a private company came in offered to buy the sewage from the city of Jackson to turn the sewage into biofuels. Can you imagine the money that we would have to invest in our roads and resources if we weren't having to pay to process the sewage and we were getting paid? They were turned down. They were turned down again by the (Chokwe) Lumumba administration. We haven't had people who were looking for those opportunities and engaging those opportunities to make Jackson a better place.
I think Mayors Johnson and Lumumba were concerned about Jackson's independence and giving that up.
How independent are we when we're under this EPA mandate? It's $400 million and a lot of engineers are saying it's going to go up. That's not independence. We can talk about being independent all we want to but in the end we're all dependent on one another. We rely on a relationship with the state. We rely on relationships with the federal government. We rely on relationships with private businesses. They were concerned about Jackson's independence, well now we're under a $400 million mandate from the EPA. How independent are we now?
Do you have a wish list for Ward 1 in the 1-percent sales tax?
I have some, but I'm sure it's going to grow. Every time I talk to a constituent, I hear about another thing that needs to be on that list. Streets have to be paved. They have to be smooth, they have to be repaired timely. People, when they see potholes, and they see them linger, they feel like no one cares. And that's been one thing that has plagued the city, the feeling that no one downtown cares.
The water-delivery system is an obvious one. We've got to be fixing the pipes. And I want to take a look at these creeks. I grew up with Eubanks Creek overflowing on a constant basis. I want us to look at that creek and all of the creeks and start saying, "How can we stop these things from flooding? How can we make them nicer?" There are parts that are well-maintained. There are parts that are not, that are ignored. I think our first priority has to be the image of making sure that people know that downtown cares.
I read a lot about an exodus from northeast Jackson. How much truth is there to that?
There's obviously truth to that. You look at the population shifts, the rise in renters. There is a shift away from all from Jackson. Some of that is changing, and it's changing because of people who have energy, who want to come back in and change things (and) who want to make a difference. And that's great. We need more of it. We need policies that make people think Jackson is better. There's always this debate over whether things are actual or perceived problems. It doesn't matter when you're losing your tax base whether a problem is actual or perceived. If people are moving out because of an actual or perceived problem, they're still moving out. We need to fix both: We need to fix the perception and we need to fix the actual issues.
Tell me about your plan for expanding the number of police officers.
There are two things I'm really excited about talking about with (the Jackson Police Department). The first, JPD's biggest problem, according to Chief (Lee) Vance, is new officer retention. One of the things we (should) do is offer incentives and we offer incentives in smart budget ways. My slogan throughout all of this has been safe city, smart budget. A 2009 study was done that said if we just cut redundancy and lowered our civilian employees down to the southeastern average, we could afford, for the same money, to have 600 officers and give everybody a raise. In addition, it costs money every time we train an officer, they stick around for a year or two and then leave. I'm proposing a GI Bill for our police. You come in with in-state public university college debt, you serve four years full time or six years in the reserves and we'll pay it off. It's the equivalent of a raise without the city having to pay additional pension and FICA taxes plus it signs them in and guarantees a four-year retention. And if we retain them for four years, the odds of them staying on and staying in the reserve program go up.
So would your plan save the city or would we break even?
Saving money or breaking even will be determined by how many officers enroll in the program and how long they stay. It's designed with four and six years in mind to break even and retain more officers. If they stay longer, the costs of training would come in a lump sum earlier and get amortized longer and it ends up saving the city money.
Let's talk about some of the big votes that took place on council this year, starting with the vote to authorize the election on the 1-percent sales tax.
I think that was a great vote. I think that was the way it needed to be done. If people are going to be taxed, they should vote on their taxation. I think that the overwhelming support that that tax got shows the city supported it. I think the people have a right to have a say on tax increases.
Did you vote for it?
I did. That's probably the only time I voted in favor of higher taxes.
Are you comfortable with how that process has gone—the selection of the commission members, etc.
Not entirely. I have some questions about some of it, but I think those are being smoothed out. I think a lot of it is oversight and the level of trust people have in Jackson. I think there's an expression about the trust people have in Mayor Yarber, that the Chamber of Commerce has given the city their votes on the commission. There are still questions about...there are some people I thought should have been on there, but all-in-all it's been an acceptable process.
What about the pro-equality resolution? What's your view on resolutions in general and that one specifically.
Symbolic resolutions, to me, are a lot of fluff with no substance. It's like naming streets. Naming streets is a giant waste of the city's time and a waste of money. We want to name a street after somebody, let's do what the state does and private foundations do and let's get a private foundation to raise the money to cover that and maybe cover some of the money for the upkeep of that street. If we want a building named after someone on Belhaven's campus, we go out and raise the money and we build that building. All this symbolic resolution stuff is just a waste of the city's time.
On the LGBT resolution, do you know how you would have voted?
I wouldn't have been a big fan of it. I would have opposed even having a vote on it because quite frankly LGBT people are covered by the entire Constitution.
A lot of people don't think so.
Everybody is covered under the Constitution and I get sick of symbolic resolutions that go out of their way to make an issue of something without solving anything. And, to me, that's what the LGBT resolution did. It went out of its way to be grandstanding and garner press, but it didn't solve anything. It didn't even present a problem. And that's what bothers me. And I'll also say that I don't think the city should discriminate in its hiring practices. But to put it in some grandiose resolution, I don't appreciate grandstanding and I don't appreciate time-wasting.
The city council also voted to raise the minimum wage for city employees.
I would have supported that. Part of retaining good people is paying them like they're worth it. We expanded a lot of the executive branch's money in terms of salaries. It cost, what $250,000 for the raises? There's some question about that and I think that's one of the problems with some of these major votes. I don't think there's enough evidence being shown and enough discussion about how much something is going to cost. I think it's a good thing, but I wish we had more depth in numbers as to how much that boost is going cost us.
You've talked a couple times about the role of businesses and the opportunity for public-private partnerships. There's a feeling that the city should be going in the other direction, in-sourcing, building internal capacity.
I couldn't disagree more. I think there are places where the city should in-source.
I think there's some study that needs to be done. My gut says there are places to do it. That said, the research isn't being done. But I think the city's solutions lie in private partnerships not in more government.
What are your thoughts on regionalism, which has been a focus of the Chamber?
When I was making a decision on whether to run, I not only called Jackson leaders I called leaders in Madison County and Rankin County and Clinton and areas like that because Jackson should be a hub for all of the suburbs. I'm a big fan of regional partnerships, regional cooperatives, regional solutions.
How old are you?
I'm older than Tate Reeves when we elected him treasurer. ... I'm 29.
You were involved in working on the mayor's campaign. You're in a lot of political circles. There's always a concern with the younger candidates about independence. How do you assure people that you're your own guy, that you're not going to be rubber stamp for the mayor.
Anyone who knows me know that I am my own guy. I fight my own fights. I listen to everyone involved. I'm a big believer in listening to every side and giving opportunities for people to speak, give their voice, say what they've got to say. I'm not beholden to anybody. And I care what Leland Speed thinks. I care what Socrates Garrett thinks because they've been successful. But I'm an independent businessman. I've always made a career of finding new ways and unexpected ways to accomplish things. I do my research and do my homework and then vote the way I feel I should.