Even as the Farish Street Entertainment District has been a hot topic during the special mayoral election, a development around the corner may move ahead this month, promising needed economic development for the neighborhood.
Helm Place, an 88-townhome, affordable-rental housing project that includes a 4,000-square-foot community center, is set to begin construction in the Farish Street Historic District by mid-to-late April, according to the project's Oxford-based developer, Chartre Consulting Ltd.
President Clarence Chapman said construction will officially begin once the wet weather of April dies down. Preleasing is expected 30 to 45 days before the end of construction, which Chapman hopes will be completed before the end of the year.
The law requires that the market-rate, tax-credit lease-purchased townhomes be rented out for the first 15 years to people who qualify as low-income, who will then have the opportunity to buy the homes at a bargain price.
The development is planned for next door to the historic Mt. Helm Baptist Church, considered the oldest black church in Jackson. First Baptist Church of Jackson, then segregated, created Mt. Helm in 1867 as a separate church for former slaves who had, until then, worshipped in the white church's basement.
The Rev. C. J. Rhodes was pastoring at Mt. Helm Baptist Church when city officials approached him about the project roughly a year ago. In an interview, Rhodes, now the rector at Alcorn State University, explained that Farish Street used to be known as the second-wealthiest area for African Americans in the country, after Harlem.
"It was really the center for African American culture and commerce during the age of Jim Crow because segregation created this wonderful niche of businesses, churches and homes that lasted until about the late '60s to the early '70s," he said.
Ironically, Farish Street prosperity came to an end with the removal of Jim Crow legislation, Rhodes said. He explained that the hard times that the area eventually experienced was due in large part to the unintentional consequence of desegregation. Many African Americans began moving into neighborhoods and visiting businesses they were once forbidden to enter. With many residents leaving Farish Street, many houses fell into disrepair and businesses suffered.
"What has really kept as it alive as it is—and it's almost on life support—is the churches and the few businesses that have stayed," Rhodes said.
Mt. Helm Baptist Church hosted the groundbreaking ceremony for Helm Place on Thursday, Feb. 13. Former Gov. William Winter, Gov. Phil Bryant and then- Mayor Chokwe Lumumba were in attendance, just 12 days before Lumumba died.
"I was invited back to open the ceremonies with a time of worship," Rhodes wrote on his blog. "Hymns, responsive reading, and an invocation marked yesterday's event as something more than your average political gathering where elected officials exult another economic expansion. The oldest black church wanted to let the watching city and state know that it was still, first and foremost, a church."
Resistance for the project first came about when it was originally designed for Jackson State University. Chapman said that JSU also had a new stadium in the works that was to be built across the street from area designated for the housing development. He explained that the resistance came from the university not wanting to jeopardize the construction of the new stadium.
However, Kimberly Hilliard, executive director of community engagement at JSU, said that the project moved due to opposition from JSU's surrounding community.
Lee Harper, co-founder of Koinonia Coffee House, led several community meetings about the project and told the JFP that the possibility of a stadium was never brought up during meetings. Until she found out that the project was being moved to the Farish Street area, the community was under the impression that the project was moving forward on the original site near JSU.
Since the townhomes would have been rented out people who qualify as low-income, Harper said that the residents had many questions in regards to whether the people renting the homes for the first 15 years would actually be able to afford ownership after that time period was up. She reasoned that although the project was never under heavy opposition, maybe it was the community's questioning that caused Chapman to move the project.
"Maybe it scared him off," Harper told the Jackson Free Press.
Chapman and his company worked with the city and decided that the area around Mt. Helm would be a much better site for the project, he said.
"It's probably a five-times-better site for our housing, our residents and what it's going to do for the community there than at Jackson State, where we were in a controversial position that we didn't understand, didn't like and didn't want to be in," he said.
The project also met resistance from residents and Mt. Helm congregation members when it was moved to the Farish Street district. Chapman said that the residents' reticence was mainly due to what he says is an erroneous notion that the townhomes would be geared toward a more "white collar" community and, thus, gentrify people out of the area.
"When we went in and wanted to work with and around Mt. Helm, putting in market-rate, tax credit-purchased townhomes ... they (residents) had some heartburn with that because they thought all that should go in the area is basically what had been in the area, which is some shotgun houses and some older 1920s and '30s houses that are now torn down or dilapidated."
Chapman said the solution to combating that resistance was educating the community about the project and reassuring them that their rents would include people like "policemen, firemen, teachers—all kinds of city workers and university workers."
He also worked with the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History, which informed the commission that the residential portion of the Farish Street Historic District should not be included in the district any longer because so many structures had already been torn down. This opened the doors for the commission to have a much broader range of what they could accept as far as the designs for the area, Chapman said.
Rhodes admitted that he and several Mt. Helm church members were initially wary of the project and wondered if the company had an ulterior motive.
"There was some suspicion for us at the church because we were, you know—I'll be frank, they were white developers in a predominantly black area, and we were trying to figure out, 'Who are you, and what do you want?'"
After a trying time filled with disagreements and resistance, the project is finally on its way to beginning construction.
It is the hope of Chapman, Rhodes and other Farish Street residents that Helm Place will be the spark that Farish Street needs to return it to prosperity.
"The intention was for it to be a spark—to be a leading-off for other parts of the District," Rhodes said. "We really see this as the first real, significant transformation of the District that will hopefully ultimately lead to the prosperity of not only the residents but also a 'bringing back to life' of the whole area."