Jackson — When then Metrocenter manager Nina Holbrook and East Ford owner Al East formed the Metrocenter Area Coalition in 1998, not many people noticed.
But in January, when Holbrook resigned her position as regional manager of Coyote Management to become full-time director of the coalition, heads turned.
“We knew with Nina at the helm full-time, things would really start to happen,” said East.
In six months, Holbrook has persuaded Jackson and Hinds County officials and the Mississippi Main Street Association to partner with the coalition to, as she put it, “get rid of the blight from the Clinton city limits to the Pearl River.”
“There’s not much available land in Jackson for people to develop, and here we have hundreds of acres in the best location in the state,” said Holbrook. “We’ve lost out on new business because of the blight. We’ve got to clean this area up. That’s our goal. We want one day for Highway 80 in Jackson to look like a viable retail and commercial district, with more sales tax being generated and better property values.”
Pride in the neighborhood
East, who has lobbied for improvements on U.S. 80 since he opened his dealership in 1962, said the coalition was initially formed “for us to have a little pride in our neighborhood.”
“Nina was the mall manager and we were both complaining about how the city wasn’t picking up trash or cutting the grass at the intersection of Highways 18 and 80,” said East. “Since the highway department only cuts the grass on the right-of-ways and intersections every two or three months, we asked neighboring businesses to join us in keeping the area clean and cut. The city wasn’t going to help.”
The beautification plan worked. Over the next several years, the coalition pooled money and planted crepe myrtles and bushes, and hung neighborhood flags and pennants. More merchants joined, and the coalition now numbers 30.
“Everyone got active and our area of Highway 80 looked real good,” he said. “The problem we still have is with the rest of Highway 80 in Jackson. The end toward the river is in really bad shape, especially around the old Tarrymore Motel, which is headquarters for prostitution and drug distribution. The police and everybody in town know about it, but it’s still there. So we decided to expand our coalition’s area of operation in both directions, from the Metrocenter to the river and to the Clinton city limits. We’d been working real hard, but had difficulty getting the city to help.”
Earlier this year, Franklyn Tate, deputy director of planning and development for the Jackson Redevelopment Authority (JRA) and manager of the city’s economic development office, joined the 17-member coalition board and helped secure $16,000 in enterprise community funds for landscape improvements at the Interstate 220 and U.S. 80 interchange and lighting improvements that extend to Gallatin Street. He is also helping facilitate communication between the coalition, the Jackson Police Department and Hinds County Sheriff’s Department.
“The city is also proposing a restricted urban renewal district as part of a master plan for revitalization in conjunction with the JRA, which would allow us to declare areas for demolition and offer tax incentives to new or expanding businesses,” said Tate. “We think that will be a very big step.”
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. “is pushing this JRA deal through — fast,” said Holbrook.
“They’re definitely on board with us,” she said. “One of our biggest assets is having Sheriff Malcolm McMillan on our board. He’s training inmates to cut the grass every week on Highway 80, for example, and is providing other support.”
In researching the history of U.S. 80, Holbrook discovered that when the American Association of State Highway Officials introduced the numbering system for the network of roads crisscrossing the country in November 1926, it was considered the nation’s first transcontinental highway. With 2,726 miles beginning in Savannah, Ga., and ending in San Diego, Calif., it was known as The Dixie Overland Highway and considered “the shortest and only year-round ocean-to-ocean highway.”
Holbrook contacted Beverly Meng, executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association, who has facilitated several town meetings at the Coca-Cola plant on U.S. 80 that resulted in visioning, goal setting and committee structures for action work plans. Three committees — design, economic restructuring and promotion — will share their findings at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, August 16, at East Ford.
“What has impressed me the most is the great diversity at these meetings and the recognition that all must be at the table for this effort to succeed,” said Meng. “The Metrocenter Area Coalition has embraced the importance of appearance and the ‘curb appeal’ of a community. We’ve seen so many towns take off and soar, and we feel that this neighborhood of Jackson can become as strong as any neighborhood program or town of its size. It takes changing the mindsets of some folks who are there, as well as some of the decision makers. If a community believes in itself, is willing to invest a lot of time and sweat equity, and starts talking to itself, anything good can happen. We are happy to be playing a small part in this revitalization effort.”
Holbrook is awaiting permission from Illinois Central Railroad to clean up the overpass at Highway 80 and Gallatin Street that was constructed in 1858. “Its age is showing,” she said. Improvements at Battlefield Park, where she played as a child, have people “coming back to the area … and that helps us with our efforts.”
Last month, Holbrook met with area homeowner’s association leaders, who are joining the coalition’s efforts. But even though the coalition is making progress, hurdles remain. Last year, site selectors nixed a location on Highway 80 because low-rent hotel owners refused to sell their property even though the sale would have represented a significant profit, said Holbrook.
“Some property owners buy into the way it is now because it’s more profitable for them,” she said. “But we talk to the Jackson Police Department every day, and they’re working with us. We’re definitely enthusiastic about our vision, and have a can-do spirit.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.