UPDATE: Jackson Planning Board voted against the city's zoning request on Aug. 27. Read more here.
Despite some community concern, Mayor Tony Yarber is moving forward in pursuit of a Costco on Lakeland Drive where Smith-Wills Stadium and the Michael D. Johnson Memorial Ballpark currently sit. To do so, the city must rezone the area to allow commercial development.
The state originally deeded Jackson the land under the condition that it would be used for "park purposes," which is why Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann sent Yarber a letter Aug. 8 saying the state would become involved if the city tried to commercialize the area.
"Please know the Secretary of State, as State Land Commissioner, will exercise the State's right of reversion to any property that is rezoned and utilized for any purposes other than a park," Hosemann wrote.
In an Aug. 22 interview, Yarber told the Jackson Free Press that the state's position and their threat of reversion is simply a "non-legal opinion"—one he is not worried will stop the development, which he said would bring about 235 jobs to Jackson, all of which start over $11 an hour.
All seven members of the city council were copied on Hosemann's letter. Jackson's Planning Board will meet Aug. 27 to discuss the rezoning of the land surrounding the intersection of Lakeland Drive and Interstate 55, which is currently used for museums and parks.
Mayor: Museums Will Survive
Yarber expressed his support of the LeFleur Museum District—including the Mississippi Children's Museum, the Mississippi Museum of National Science, Mississippi agricultural Museum and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum—when it was established in May 2014. "I know we are working towards that goal so that we can ensure that the history, the richness of our city and state is being displayed every time someone comes into the city of Jackson," Yarber said at the May press conference.
Yet, at press time, Yarber had not communicated with Ward 7 City Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon, who represents the district in which the Costco will be built if the mayor succeeds with his efforts.
"I was told that they really didn't have much information," Barrett-Simon told the JFP. "It's so unusual that there has been no public engagement here."
Yarber said that such matters are dealt with in his branch of government, however.
"The councilmen are aware and they are briefed, but negotiations happen on the administrative side of the table," Yarber told the JFP last week.
Instead, Yarber said he is doing everything he can to make sure "Jackson gets what it deserves, and in this case, that's a Costco."
Yarber said Costco developers have found a way to build Costco without tearing down Smith-Wills Stadium.
The Costco would replace the nearby baseball field, which Yarber said is inadequate and lacking resources. Murrah High School currently uses the field.
Barrett-Simon doesn't see how that plan is plausible. "There's no way that you could have a Costco go in this property without taking that stadium down," Barrett-Simon said. "Nobody had to tell me; I can just look at a map and figure out that it would have to come down."
A Win for Workers?
Yarber did admit that the rezoning could threaten Smith-Wills in the future, which he said would benefit the city since the stadium costs $200,000 to maintain while only garnering $20,000 in revenue.
"While we're saying we're not tearing it down now, at some point if we or the management there can't find a way to better impact the bottom line, it may be something that the city can't continue to maintain anyway," Yarber said.
But that's not Barrett-Simon's concern. "The issue is this is contrary to our land-use plan," she said. "I don't care if it's 1944 or 2014 ... our forefathers had some idea about what would be appropriate there."
Another concern with the proposed site has to do with the infrastructure of the area. Approximately 59,000 vehicles travel through the Lakeland Drive and Interstate 55 intersection each day, and the addition of a big-box retailer could increase the congestion along the thoroughfare.
But it is precisely the Lakeland Drive traffic that makes it a desired location for Costco, which plans to build its first store in Mississippi.
Initially, Costco, one of the top three largest retailers in the nation, reportedly showed interest in three potential locations on Lakeland Drive—one in Jackson and two in Flowood. However, the big-box retailer is unlikely to choose to develop on either of the Flowood sites because Rankin is a dry county. Liquor is a crucial source of revenue for Costco. A Jackson location also means that the city would benefit from its sales-tax collections, which some see as a boon after Sam's Club's decision to move to Madison.
In the world of big-box retailers, Costco is considered the best when it comes to employment treatment and satisfaction. The jobs site Glassdoor conducted an employee survey this summer that, as reported by The Huffington Post, ranked Costco only slightly behind Google for companies with best employee compensation and benefits. CEO and President Craig Jelinek is publicly in favor of a national minimum wage of $10.10 and said in 2013 that Costco has a "starting hourly wage of $11.50 in all states where we do business."
Glassdoor reported that Costco cashiers makes $15.20 an hour on average, while they average $9.37 an hour at Sam's Club and $8.18 an hour at Target. And about 88 percent of Costco employees have company-sponsored health insurance.
If the Costco is to be built on the Jackson site, it will be directly next to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Rick Cleveland, the hall of fame and museum director, said a Costco would not match the atmosphere of the area.
Susan Gerrard, the director of the nearby Mississippi Children's Museum, also believes the proposed zoning will not promote appropriate use of the land and that "a big box store doesn't really fit the long-range growth and development for a travel and tourism district."
Not to mention, Cleveland said the area has not changed enough to warrant a rezoning.
To rezone the property for commercial use, the city must prove that the "character of the neighborhood has changed to such an extent as to justify reclassification." But the establishment of the LeFleurs Museum District arguably reinforces the area as a cultural and historical site, Cleveland said.
Yarber said there is enough proof that the area has changed, but would not give specific examples for fear of revealing his "legal strategy."
Cleveland wrote a letter to Jackson's Planning Board on behalf of the Hall of Fame board urging the planners to refuse the rezoning.
Because the proposed area of rezoning is larger than the land the Costco would be built on, Cleveland fears that "this rezoning effort would open a Pandora's Box of commercialization. What's next?" he wrote in the letter.
It is also unclear if Costco knows that the Jackson site is on top of a landfill, which would require adhering to additional regulations, accumulating more costs for the retailer.
Cleveland, who just facilitated the construction of a storage-unit addition to the sports museum, said the construction costs were double due to the landfill underneath.
Yarber said the city is working with planners to make sure the Costco "marries its environment" and doesn't "stick out like a sore thumb," in order to keep the area's current character.