Farish Street Still in the Balance | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Farish Street Still in the Balance

When it comes to Farish Street, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority feels damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

When it comes to Farish Street, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority feels damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Photo by Trip Burns.

During the day, little is happening on Farish Street. As most people know, plans to redevelop the historic street, which once stood as the central-business-district for Jackson's African American community, lagged for years only before new hope met a legal morass in 2012.

Yet another complicating layer was added earlier this year, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered the City of Jackson to pay back government grants that helped the city buy the land.

The main players include the city, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority—a quasi-governmental arm of the city—and Farish Street Group, the David Watkins-led private development group that once held the master lease on redevelopment plans.

Individually, the parties often talk about the need to have a meeting of the minds to hash out solutions to detangling the Farish mess, but so far no such gathering has taken place. The stalemate has come into focus recently as JRA has grappled with how to handle several buildings that are falling down and represent a public-safety hazard.

"Do we violate the law by doing something, or do we violate the law by nothing?," JRA Commissioner Mat Thomas asked fellow commissioners at a Jan. 28 meeting.

A structural analysis revealed that several JRA-owned buildings in the 300 block of North Farish are a liability in their current condition.

Two buildings that are side-by-side need $87,755 for asbestos removal, boarding up and other structural enhancements. Another building on that block needs an estimated $125,000 to support its roof, while another group of buildings will require more than $140,000 to stabilize them. Together, the repairs will cost more than $353,000. JRA explored demolishing buildings, but the Jackson Historic Preservation Commission denied that request, prompting JRA to file a public-records request asking the city commission to explain the rationale for the denial.

Pernila Stimley Brown, JRA's board attorney, said the authority's meeting minutes should be a sufficient paper trail to prove that JRA has not been negligent. In the meantime, JRA is looking at the temporary solution of propping up the structures, but, depending on what the engineers come up with, it could get JRA in trouble with HUD.

In September, a federal review of the expenditure of community-development block grants earmarked for Farish Street resulted in the HUD requiring the City of Jackson to repay $1.5 million used to buy Farish properties. In a letter to Jackson city officials, HUD monitors said they were doubtful that Farish Street would ever become the entertainment district and economic engine planners originally intended.

In addition to requiring repayment of the CDBG money over the course of three years, HUD also suspended several organizations from working with HUD-funded programs. They include the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, which owns the buildings and has leased the property to several development groups over the years. Also included were Farish Street Group (FSG) LLC—a project that Watkins led and held the master lease on until last year—Watkins Development LLC and Jason Goree, a former Watkins employee who now heads up economic development for Jackson.

The JRA and city are in talks to pay the money back so that development on Farish Street is not tied up for years to come. But with that suspension still hanging over the project, some JRA commissioners are unsure whether supporting the crumbling buildings would violate HUD's order to halt development. "We need a meeting with all hands on deck," Brown, the JRA attorney, said.

Read more about the Farish saga at www.jfp.ms/watkins.

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