The push for an entertainment arena in downtown Jackson, once a private endeavor, is now a matter for city government. Last month, the steering committee of business leaders that has been raising funds for an arena feasibility study handed control of the project to Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.
The change gives the proposed study a bit of official sanction, but it also pushes back the project's timeline considerably.
Johnson told the Jackson Free Press that he offered to take control of the study after learning at a December Jackson Chamber of Commerce meeting that private support for a study was flagging.
"It appeared (that), for whatever reason, some of the momentum, some of the steam was leaving the effort," Johnson said.
"The message that I got was that it would probably fall off the table because there was no longer any leadership there. ... I said, 'Well, the city will take over, will step into that spot.' There was a lot of fanfare in rolling out the effort, and we certainly would want to try to complete it."
Support for an arena downtown dates back to 2008, when Downtown Jackson Partners sponsored a bus trip to Little Rock, Ark. Local business leaders, inspired by Little Rock's Verizon Arena, decided to pursue a similar facility in Jackson.
That initial wave of enthusiasm subsided in 2009, however, and the steering committee shelved the project until June 2010.
On Nov. 16, 2010, the committee hosted an "Arena Extravaganza" to launch a new fundraising and publicity campaign. Less than a month later, on Dec. 9, however, the group had turned over control of project to the city, according to the group's website. The committee's online timeline states that it provided "official notification" of the changeover to the public on Dec. 20.
Jonathan Lee, who served as president of the Jackson Chamber in 2010 and chairman of the steering committee, offered a version of the changeover that differed from the mayor's.
"Basically, the city stepped up and said that they would take a more active role in the process," Lee said. "And, gosh, we were happy to oblige them. It's really a great thing, I think. This is a breakthrough for us."
Lee acknowledged that the committee's fundraising effort fell short of its year-end goal of $80,000. As of Dec. 9, the group had collected $65,915 in pledged contributions.
"We were a little shy of that," Lee said. "I'm pretty confident, whatever the figure ends up being--and it's a moving target now--that we'll be able to raise the money."
The group's $80,000 fundraising goal was based on an assumed matching grant from the Hinds County Economic Development District. Lee said that the city will have to secure its own matching funds. The committee estimated the total cost of a feasibility study at $160,000.
The project's transfer will likely delay the actual start of a feasibility study. The steering committee had already selected consulting firm Populous Sports, which not only provides arena feasibility assessments but also designs facilities, to complete the study. Johnson said that the city's planning department will have to review the Populous contract before deciding whether to retain the firm or solicit a new round of proposals from consultants.
Beyond assessing the feasibility of an arena, the study should also estimate an arena's cost, and present options for financing the facility's construction and operations, Johnson said. "It's only fair to request that information, because ultimately the taxpayers are going to be counted on to foot some of that bill," Johnson said.
Arenas, as entertainment and sports venues, have typically cropped up in cities as publicly financed buildings with private operators. Concessions, luxury seating, sponsorships and naming rights tend to cover operating expenses, but often-controversial arenas themselves rarely provide considerable revenues to the cities and counties that finance their construction.
Like arena supporters in other cities, proponents of a Jackson arena have argued that a 15,000-seat facility would allow the city to attract high-profile performers and events, and spur economic development around the arena site. Independent studies of arenas' economic impact are hard to find and rarely conclusive, with the individual circumstances of each facility heavily influencing its relative benefit to the surrounding city.
Johnson said that he expects the planning department staff to take the next four weeks to develop a new list of requirements for the study, one that includes the "benefits or burdens that would accrue to the taxpayers." Only then will they decide whether to issue a new request for proposals.
"Personally, I'd love to see an arena in downtown Jackson," he said. "That's my personal view. But as mayor of the city--a city, by the way, that has limited resources and many needs--I'm going to have to rely on an investigation and assessment by the professionals to let me know how feasible this notion is."