Jackson—the core city of the metro and the capital of the state of Mississippi—has a basic economic problem. Population loss. Result: less money to fix things and do stuff.
What Jackson needs, perhaps more than anything else, is more taxpaying people to help shoulder the burden and work on solutions.
If we succeed, we'll have done something remarkable, potentially improving the lives of all current citizens. But how we do that will define the city for generations.
I had the privilege of spending most of this past Monday in four different meetings with Josh McManus, a creative place-making, entrepreneurial dynamo who was visiting Jackson from Detroit, Mich., sponsored by Team Jackson, Downtown Partners and the Jackson Free Press. McManus as been a principal in a number of successful creative economic initiatives in towns such as Chattanooga, Tenn.; Akron, Ohio; and most recently in Detroit.
In our early meeting with McManus, a coffee-and-Broad-Street-pastries roundtable with some local business owners, McManus immediately hit on our need to increase population. "Potholes are a symptom," he told us, pointing out that all post-industrial cities in the U.S. have infrastructure challenges. H added that the ones that deal with it the best are the ones that have a growing population base of taxpayers.
McManus was quick to say that means any taxpayer—not just the big-money folks that too many people hand-wring about, but any hard-working young person, professional or family. My bold-letter translation: That doesn't just mean we need more white folks. It means we need anyone who is willing to dig in and do the work, and, yes, have a good time doing it.
In fact, we need diversity—ethnic, cultural, income, age—because that's what makes a place damn interesting in the first place. E pluribus unum.
Urban growth actually starts with retention. The best way to get people to stay in Jackson is for us to get involved in a million small solutions to our problems—and not just grousing about the problems. Haters can go watch cable.
One of the strengths that Jackson offers is energetic and engaged people of all ages—"the people" is a frequent winner in the Best of Jackson reader poll (see bestofjackson.com) for reasons to live in Jackson. And one great reason to join us is the opportunity to really be a part of something bigger than yourself and to make a difference in your community.
Fortunately, just showing up with a positive attitude is a huge start.
In his talks, McManus brought us back again and again to the "million little things" that he's seen effect change in the cities where he's been active. In Chattanooga, they figured out that part of the problem was they were an "18/5" city instead of a "24/7" city. So they set out to change that in small ways—including throwing a downtown all-nighter party where lots of businesses and organizations got engaged. A local downtown dinner restaurant decided to do a pop-up breakfast during the all-nighter for the first time, and a yoga studio started doing 3 a.m. group sessions to complement the music, art and reverie. It made people think, and it helped them to believe that things could change.
That is actually the key. Believe it can change.
McManus told us that he encourages people to "love your problem" instead of loving their solution. That approach allows you to try different things, be flexible and less ideological when it comes to how to solve a problem, and to be willing to fail at a lot of stuff on the way to better, inclusive solutions.
For instance, a lot of people would say that the quality of Jackson's public schools drive out younger professionals (white and black, although more white than black) when their kids reach a certain age. So the solution? Charters! Vouchers! Ideology!
To solve a problem, you can't love the solution—you need to love the problem. And problems that you love are those that you try to overcome in a million different ways. Public schools need support and nurturing and marketing and partnership in a million different ways, not one big ideological change.
Let's fund the public schools if we can convince the Legislature to remove its collective head from its collective hindquarters and stop trying to trick voters into voting against Initiative 42 (see page 9.)
But if we can't make the state fund them, let's invest in them ourselves. Let's use Alignment Jackson to create more programs for our local businesses to get involved in. Let's build better mentoring and internship programs. Let's encourage more arts and music education. Let's throw a talent show and an awards ceremony and fund some scholarships and bring the local colleges into the mix and try a million things. And let's watch the more successful charters and learn from them and see what we can do to improve things—without giving up and outsourcing the effort.
Being walkable and bike-able and designed to respect pedestrians is a good idea for Jackson. JSU could help with the planning. And, as McManus said, road paint is cheap. Is it a huge idea that changes the whole world? No. One of a million ideas that could help tackle our problem? Yes.
How about outdoor recreation? Jackson has a river—the Pearl. The Pearl can be a really nice place to float or kayak or bike or fish or even sunbathe on sandbar. To make it a resource for the city and for recreation and for creating place and for encouraging new residents does not require a billion-dollar development. It doesn't need an act of Congress. It just requires loving the problem—coming up with a bunch of different solutions for getting people to the river to enjoy and appreciate it now, not years down the road.
In this issue of the Jackson Free Press, to celebrate our 13 years of publishing in Jackson, we offer 13 different ideas for getting started. There are many more, including some that you should come up with and try to implement yourself (and post at jfp.ms/jxn13).
But the bottom line is this—we are the solution we've been waiting for. It is up to us to love the problem, work on a million ways to tackle it and have a good time trying.
Todd Stauffer is the publisher and co-owner of the Jackson Free Press, which launched 13 years ago on Sept. 22. Email him at [email protected]