The Jackson Redevelopment Authority is again searching for a new director. The departure of Jason Brookins after a nearly three-year stint may slow some of the redevelopment projects in the agency’s pipeline. At the same time, the coming change in leadership is an opportunity for Jackson to assess the work of the quasi-public agency, its decision-making and its transparency.
The Jackson Redevelopment Authority typically operates well out of the spotlight. In fact, few people even know the role and scope of the authority created for Jackson in 1968 as the nation set out on an ambitious campaign of urban renewal.
The obscurity of the JRA is unfortunate. After all, its board members are key deciders in how Jackson tackles urban decay.
It’s also the gate-keeper on public development money in Jackson. Each month, requests for tax-free loans totaling tens of millions of dollars — and in some cases hundreds of millions — go to the five-member board appointed by the mayor for a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Equally important, the board has authority to initiate eminent domain within districts designated as redevelopment zones, which today includes much of downtown Jackson and a long stretch of the U.S. Highway 80 corridor.
True, the mayor as the city’s top elected official can veto land takings and a new amendment to the state constitution severely curbed the taking of private property on behalf of private enterprise. But don’t bet the ranch on those safeguards preventing a repeat of the convention hotel fiasco left us by the late Frank Melton. As many Jacksonians painfully recall, Mayor Melton pressured the JRA to invoke eminent domain on five or so acres adjacent to the convention center.
Mr. Melton saw the land-taking as a way to jump start a deal with Texas developer TCI Investments on getting a convention hotel built. The JRA condemned the parcels and sold them to the developer for around $6 million in money TCI borrowed from the city.
The city council has since removed TCI from the $90 million hotel deal and is hoping to attract a new developer in 2013. The hitch is that the Texas company owns the parcels seen as crucial for the hotel development and won’t give them up for any less than $14 million. In Monopoly, there are winners and losers. Not hard to see who the banker will pay in this one.
In late 2011, the JRA’s judgment came into question when it set a 30-day period for responding to a request for proposals for the convention hotel, compressing the period from its customary 90 days. The action ostensibly came as a way to help TCI meet a deadline for receiving tax-free Gulf Opportunity Zone Bonds, or GO-Zone, before the post-Katrina assistance initiative expired at midnight on Dec. 31, 2011.
Equally bothersome in the JRA’s rush to accommodate TCI was the agency’s willingness to endorse nearly $50 million in Urban Renewal bonds for the hotel without first having an in-depth market analysis to determine whether the hotel would be a money maker or money loser. If a loser, city taxpayers would be on the hook for the bond payments.
It’s easy to misfire when you’re wagering on the potential of an urban renewal project. But the best handicappers are the ones who do their homework – and lots of it.
Due diligence doesn’t come cheap. It takes time and money, neither of which the JRA has an abundant supply of. A City Hall spokesman put the agency’s annual budget at about $100,000, mostly for personnel.
The big responsibilities the city has handed the JRA are way out of proportion to the agency’s operating budget. Scrutinizing redevelopment loan proposals on the cheap hardly protects taxpayers.
Mr. Brookins came to the JRA with a background in real estate – not redevelopment of public lands and buildings. His successor should have expertise in that area. The new hire should also have a willingness to operate openly and to advise against actions that reflect poorly on the agency or that expose taxpayer dollars to more risk than is necessary.