Whoever takes the oath of office as Jackson’s new mayor in July will inherit almost $3 billion dollars’ worth of in-progress development in the city’s downtown.
A wave of hotels, apartments, restaurants and nightclubs are scheduled to make their debut in the next year and a half, so the new boss had better be prepared to attend a lot of ribbon-cuttings.
Celebrating existing development is one thing. Keeping it going will be one of the measuring sticks the downtown business community uses to judge the mayor.
Former mayor Harvey Johnson, who served from 1997 to 2005, and former city councilman Marshand Crisler will meet in the Democratic runoff May 19. The winner is virtually assured to take the general election June 2.
Frank Melton, whose death last week came about 48 hours after he finished third in the Democratic primary, set a good example for encouraging development, said Downtown Jackson Partners president Ben Allen.
“One of the things that Frank Melton did that has been unprecedented is that he literally turned over downtown redevelopment to the private sector and said, ‘Call us when you need us. Put the deals together and we’ll get on board,’” Allen said.
Melton’s focus most of the time centered on police-style patrols throughout the city, many of which landed him in trouble. One of them resulted in the destruction of a duplex; the second federal trial related to the incident was supposed to start this week.
For all his shortcomings, one thing Melton got right, Allen said, is that he remained detached just enough from the behind-the-scenes work necessary to secure big projects like the new Pinnacle office building.
That approach allowed the private sector to navigate through the quagmires typically associated with big project mega-deals.
“When you go into business deals, you’re looking for every way for them to work. You go into a meeting (with government officials), you’re looking for a ‘yes,’ you’re not looking for a ‘no,’” Allen said.
“Government by nature does not like to make decisions because if you don’t make decisions you don’t make mistakes. They freak out about making mistakes, and it’s not just our government, it’s every government.”
That is not to imply that there is no role government can play in downtown development. Common financing methods like tax incremental financing bonds and outright loans have to be approved by government entities. Without that, a lot of big, complex developments wouldn’t happen.
“There are a few instances where government has really helped development,” Allen said. “I think of Laurence Leyens in Vicksburg and what he’s done with his aggression. I think about Gene McGee in Ridgeland and Mary Hawkins-Butler in Madison and Jimmy Foster in Pearl.
“Government can help, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have the private sector to make it work. So I’m just hoping that whoever gets elected mayor will continue to work with the private sector as aggressively as the past administration did.”
Jackson rapper and developer Brad “Kamikaze” Franklin, director of media and entertainment for Watkins Development, said the biggest job for the next mayor will be to serve as the city’s chief ambassador.
Along with the King Edward Hotel and the Standard Life mixed-use developments, Watkins Development is redeveloping the Farish Street Historic District.
“We need the mayor to send a clear, concise message that the City of Jackson is open for business,” Franklin said. “We’re not talking about giving away the store. We’re not talking about giving away taxpayer dollars or making special provisions for anybody else.”
When developers approach city officials and private associations about a project, Franklin said, there should not be a labyrinth of bureaucratic hoops for them to jump through. Taking a deal from the initial pitch to groundbreaking requires cooperation and could be killed by a balky mayor or a reluctant city council.
“Ultimately it’s the people, the private businesses, the private developers like us that are going to help cities prosper,” Franklin said. “At the same time, it’s always a bonus if you have your mayor and your city council on your side.”