Bif Browning calls downtown Jackson home.
JACKSON — Malcolm White enjoys the convenience of urban dwelling. Allen Hart likes loft living. And Bif Browning calls downtown nesting “edgy.”
“Old brick and hardwoods,” said Browning. “You can’t build like that now.”
White, Hart and Browning represent residents that live in downtown Jackson, a percentage so small “that it barely registers,” said White.
The problem isn’t space. It’s a lack of investors and developers.
“There’s real potential oozing, but it takes a real movement — and a very aggressive government — to make it happen,” said John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners (DJP), formerly known as Capitol Center Inc. (CCI).
A former resident of downtown Memphis, Lawrence recently replaced long-time president Don Shea.
“Since John arrived, for the first time in the history of the Business Improvement District, we have a cooperative agreement with the city,” said White, co-owner of Hal & Mal’s and DJP board member. “They’ve never been on the same page before now. In fact, throughout CCI history, they were at odds, which is just insane. I’m real proud of that minor achievement, which is a major one in many ways.”
According to recent studies, Lawrence said there’s a pent-up demand for about 1,400 residential units in downtown Jackson.
“We compared Jackson to about 21 other cities, some as small as Meridian and Columbus, some as large as Atlanta or Charlotte,” he said. “The percentages of downtown residents to downtown employees and metro area residents are consistent and that’s how we determined the number.”
Convenience is the primary attraction of downtown living, said White.
“Almost everything you need is right here,” he said. “I go to the Jitney No. 14 and the drug store, both down State Street. The laundry is right there, too. We have good restaurants and museums and a new art gallery and cool places to hang out. Because I dread getting in my car even to drive to Fortification Street, I walk a lot, even to the state fair and the Bandits games. You’d be surprised at how little time I spend in a car compared to most people I know. I save a fortune on fossil fuel.”
After pestering him for several months, Hart convinced White to rent a former art gallery and merchant company office in the Hal & Mal’s building. Hart believed the 1,150-square-foot space with 14-foot ceilings was perfect for a loft apartment.
“I had to do some renovations first, like putting in a kitchen and shower-appliances, a stainless steel countertop, shelving and that type of stuff,” he said. “And I wanted to brighten it up. It was kinda drab.”
Hart called in an architect pal, who suggested an entirely different color scheme. The black pressed aluminum ceiling was painted off-white. The walls of the main space were painted pale yellow, the kitchen was painted pale blue and the bathroom was painted pale green. A 35-foot Oriental rug covers part of the hardwood floor.
When Hart, a catering coordinator for Soulshine Pizza, married a Phelps Dunbar attorney in April, only a little rearranging was required.
“Tana liked it just as it was,” he said. “Living downtown is a lot quieter than you might imagine. The one thing that kept us awake for the longest was a nesting mockingbird on the grounds of the Old Capitol. When it turned dark, that thing started singing and sang all night long.”
Browning, 33, also put in sweat equity after he convinced Jackson attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr. to let him move into a former architect’s office, a 1,100-square-foot space located in a renovated building on North State Street.
“I love it down here,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about fighting traffic to get to work or finding a parking space because I already have one. I get to sleep in later than most everyone else because I can get to work so quickly.”
When Browning moved downtown two years ago, he bought a satellite dish because cable didn’t run past the Old Capitol Inn.
“The cable company told us it would be too expensive to bring it down for a few people,” he said. “Other than that, we have every utility, including a great Internet connection.”
Browning’s apartment has two bedrooms, a living room and office upstairs, a kitchen and huge den downstairs and a large patio. Most rooms have exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. The basement floors are scored and stained. Browning works out in a gym located two doors down in another renovated building.
“People have a horrible misconception about living downtown,” he said. “People say it’s so dangerous, but we haven’t had any problem. Of course, WorldCom has that big camera in the building behind us so we feel as secure as can be. We walk around at night for exercise. I just wish people would realize the bad perception just isn’t true.”
Rent for downtown residences is lower than in most other communities. Hart pays $450 a month. Browning, who does contract work for Eaves, wouldn’t say how much rent he paid, but said it was “a great deal.”
But lower market rents is a disincentive to potential investors and developers, Lawrence said.
“To do a significant residential development, you’ve got to look at it as any other commercial development, where your investor has to make a certain return on his investment, say 12%” he said. “Nobody is going to build anything for charity. Buying a piece of property next to a highway in a bean field for close to nothing and building inexpensive low-rise apartments is different than assembling two blocks of expensive property from 14 different owners. The construction cost will be higher, yet the return on investment has to be the same.”
Right now, the City of Jackson owns five “really good development sites” and DJP is considering issuing RFPs for two of those sites for the development of up to 400 residential units, said Lawrence.
“We’re also working with Performa Entertainment Real Estate, the developer of the Beale Street project in Memphis, who’s taken on the Farish Street Entertainment District project,” Lawrence said. “We’re talking to them about doing 150 residential units as part of that project. They need a dramatic change to the neighborhood to make the project successful and residential development is one of the ways to do that.”
In Memphis, incentives offered by city, county and state entities contributed to making the downtown revitalization project a success. The Center City Commission, which is the equivalent of DJP, agreed to freeze city, county and school property taxes for up to 25 years. In Jackson, a 10-year tax freeze program is in place, but developers must go to the city and county separately. School taxes, which represent more than half the taxes paid, aren’t exempt here.
“It’s a good incentive, but not powerful enough by itself,” said Lawrence. “The reason CCC did that was because it wasn’t costing anything extra. The schools, police officers, firemen, streets and roads and other infrastructure were already in place. It saved money in the end and taxes didn’t have to be raised. In the City of Madison, they have to bring in an incredible amount of revenue just to exist. They’re going to have to reassess the properties of homes, which they’ve been doing, or th
ey’re going to have to start raising taxes. If we build on the opportunities that exist here, it doesn’t cost the community any more money.”
Lower interest rates, guaranteed units and other funding mechanisms — the city receives about $4 million annually in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and the state receives about $14 million in CDBG funds — won’t do the trick unless the programs are under one roof with specific incentives for residential development, Lawrence said.
“In the last five or 10 years, money has been cheap enough, and it certainly helps for different lending institutions to create favorable terms