Jackson Development: Who’s On First? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Jackson Development: Who’s On First?

The Farish Street project has been a favorite whipping post for mayoral and city council candidates, but the mayor’s office doesn’t have much, if any, skin in the game.

The Farish Street project has been a favorite whipping post for mayoral and city council candidates, but the mayor’s office doesn’t have much, if any, skin in the game. Photo by Trip Burns

When it comes to the big development projects in Jackson, political candidates like to express their disapproval with how the mayor's office and city council handles business.

The common misconception is that the mayor's office has much to do with projects like Farish Street, Old Capitol Green and the proposed downtown arena. Those projects largely fall under the purview of the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, whose board of directors the mayor appoints and city council approves, but neither governs.

For what it's worth, one could blame contractors for slow movement on projects, and point fingers at the Legislature for not funding others, such as Jackson State University's $210 million domed stadium.

When it comes to the Farish Street project, the city has little, if any, skin in the game. The project has received federal and state funding since its inception in the late '90s, which went into road rehabilitation and the street lighting. The JRA owns the buildings, and Jackson's elected officials have little control over the project.

What the mayor's office can do is issue permits for renovations and development, and it has. Chris Mims, the city's director of communications, says that the mayor's office has issued $900 million in permits for developments and renovations since 2009.

"We have ongoing projects we have been involved in (such as the) $57 million Baptist (Hospital) project," Mims said. "We offer incentives to developers all the time through small business grant programs and avenues like that."

Ward 2 Councilman and mayoral candidate Chokwe Lumumba called the JRA system "backward" in an interview with the Jackson Free Press last week, saying JRA should cede power back to the mayor's office and the city council so unelected officials are not making decisions that effect the people.

"JRA seems to be the group that is vetting these developers," Lumumba said. "(The city council members) should be the ones doing that, and then take them to JRA. ... The mayor, with consultation from the city council, should be making these decisions. After we decide that, (JRA) should go out and be the ones who sell the bonds and do that type of work."

Lumumba said he would look for candidates for the JRA board who would take an expanded view of urban renewal and do their job free of political cronyism.

"Most of the city's people don't have a conscious policy on urban renewal," Lumumba said. "... That's a hazard, because if you don't know what's going on in other parts of the country and what can go right or wrong, it's dangerous. If you don't know where you're going, any road will lead you there."

Democratic mayoral challenger Jonathan Lee has been characterized as the pro-business candidate because he owns a business, and he chaired the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, a post that goes hand-in-hand with development. Business heavyweights from the Chamber, Downtown Jackson Partners and other organizations are supporting him.

"The idea that I'm the developers' candidate or the idea that I am favored by these guys is completely unfounded," Lee said in an interview with the JFP. "I've been chairman of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, no doubt about it, but one of the things that I did during my tenure (there) was to make sure that the Chamber of Commerce sponsor community forums like we do (at Koinonia Coffeehouse) every Friday.

"I don't have any allegiance to any particular developer. I just want development that makes sense for the entire community, not just for some. ... For far too long, we've been doing things to our communities in Jackson, instead of with our communities."

Former JSU attorney Regina Quinn developed a subdivision on her own, and thinks city officials should be more aggressive when it comes to attracting developers and convincing them Jackson is a quality place to live and work.

"We've got to be business friendly." Quinn said. "We've got to be very inviting, and give people what they need that is appropriate in terms of what it is that they're asking. We've got to be aggressive, extremely aggressive in doing that. I think that the work that I was able to do with the subdivision, and some of the other things that I've done in life, makes me, I guess, well suited for the job of mayor of this city."

Ward 4 Councilman and mayoral hopeful Frank Bluntson says the mayor has more influence than he lets on. Bluntson adds that if he were elected, he would move the project along at a quicker pace.

"JRA is afraid of the mayor," Bluntson said. "They won't say that, but, you know, when he speaks, they listen.

"But the fact is this: I would call in whoever the developer is and let them know that we're going to have to go to work. We're going to have to complete Farish Street, and if you can't complete it, let us know. I'll go to the city attorney, and we'll draw up whatever paperwork we need to have drawn up to make sure that we can clear that person out and get somebody else on top of it."

When asked if he's laying the blame squarely at the feet of the mayor, Bluntson said no, but added that there was more the mayor's office could do to move projects along.

"The problem lies with JRA," he said. "They're supposed to be a separate entity, but you'll find out it's not. They listen to the mayor. The mayor can still use his bully pulpit to get things done, and that's what I'd do."

Johnson weighed in on Farish Street in a Monday afternoon interview with the JFP.

"(We need) an assessment from the developer on the ability to make it happen," Johnson said. "And that goes for JRA as well as the developer. I think everybody is frustrated at this point ... and what is so frustrating is that people have forgotten how far that project has come. When I was in office before, we did the water lines, sewer lines, landscaping and lighting. This developer has fixed up the outside of the buildings, probably spent $4 (million) to $6 million of state, federal and private money. I think that when people started throwing out dates (for when Farish Street would be open), they didn't have an appreciation for just how difficult this project would be, working with the historic buildings. You can't just go tear down walls; you have to do it to standard, and that's a costly process."

If that assessment the mayor is talking about comes back saying the project is not going to be successful with the current developer, Johnson said they need to step aside or JRA needs to terminate that contract and find a new developer.

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