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Controversy grows, final vote looms for civil rights museum

A proposed $75-million civil rights museum would have a greater economic impact if it were in downtown Jackson and not at Tougaloo College.

That was the general feeling at a joint press conference held by the Jackson City Council and the Hinds County Board of Supervisors February 25.

The Civil Rights Museum Commission, whose members were appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour, recommended Tougaloo as the location in a meeting last month. The commission’s recommendation came after examining data compiled by a consulting firm.

That anywhere but downtown Jackson would be considered was a shock to Jackson City Council president Leslie McLemore.

“I never thought we would be having this discussion,” McLemore said at the press conference held at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. McLemore touted downtown’s economic development boom, spurred by projects like the Capital City Convention Center, Old Capitol Green and the Farish Street Entertainment District, and said the civil rights museum holds a natural place in the revitalization.

“We want what’s best for the museum, for Jackson and for the state,” McLemore said.

‘Good business sense’

Hinds County Board of Supervisors president Peggy Calhoun and Jackson Mayor Frank Melton both said the museum belongs downtown.

“It makes good business sense,” Calhoun said, pledging her board will do everything possible to ensure downtown gets the museum.

Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said at the press conference that he has seen figures showing that, with all the residential development downtown in the form of loft apartments and condos, that in 10 years there could be as many as 25,000 people living downtown, tripling traffic on Pearl Street and Pascagoula Street.

Carlton Brown, whose firm is developing Old Capitol Green, said downtown needs the money the museum would generate.

“It makes no sense to invest in other areas when we’re trying to create critical mass (downtown),” Brown said. “We have to create activity on the street.”

The museum commission will meet March 11 to hold a final vote on the museum’s location. Susan Lunardini, who sits on the commission’s location committee, attended the press conference and said she was “floored” by the recommendation to name Tougaloo as the site, even after a joint legislative committee had thrown its support behind downtown.

Driving the train?

Lunardini said the day after the press conference that a museum at Tougaloo would suffer from being removed from the foot traffic of downtown.

“I’m a new urbanist,” Lunardini said. “Our country in general is moving toward urbanism. Humans like to go where other humans are.”

Lunardini said downtown came in third behind Tougaloo and Hattiesburg on the consultant’s recommended list of sites.

“We hired the consultants for facts and figures,” she said. “I didn’t know the consultants were going to drive the train as far as location.”

The nine acres of land at Tougaloo would have to be leased, Lunardini said, which further bolsters the case for downtown. Lunardini said Downtown Jackson Partners had agreed to donate property on Mill Street, and the state had promised to give property adjacent to the William Winter Archives and History Building. Melton said the old Sun ‘N Sand Motel should be demolished to make room for the museum.

Yazoo City Mayor McArthur Straughter also sits on the location committee. He said last week that he did not attend the meeting that resulted in the Tougaloo recommendation. He would not say where he thinks the museum should be.

Natchez Mayor Phillip West, another location committee member, also was not present at the recommendation meeting but said he had told other members he would support their decision.

West said he was told Jackson lawyer and former Second District congressman Mike Espy held a proxy vote on the location, and Tougaloo won out.

Espy was in Washington, D.C., last week and could not be reached for comment.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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