Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber says he will soon launch a “technical assistance shop” to help the city become more of a partner rather than a hindrance to both new businesses and current ones.
It’s part of a strategy, he said, to end Jackson’s tendency to be “its own problem.”
Yarber said he has handed the job of creating the new shop to Carl Allen, interim director of Planning & Development, and Jason Goree, interim director of economic development. “We’ve been looking at how we do permitting, how we do signs, how we do follow ups,” Yarber said in an interview last week. “We’re putting a laser-like focus on recruitment and retention.”
The one-stop technical assistance shop will assign a staffer to each business that comes to City Hall in need of permits or other assistance, Yarber said, and added a draft plan is under review and expects the shop to be in operation within weeks.
He said he also is insisting on seeing proposals from staff on ways to hasten permit approvals. Additionally, he wants an overhaul of the sign ordinance, he said.
The 36-year-old pastor-turned-politician said the several years he spent as an alderman led him to conclude Jackson City Hall was squandering a good bit of the city’s economic potential. He attributed this to a perception of indifference to the business community.
He encountered a pair of discouraging examples within days of taking office, said Yarber, winner of a multi-candidate race to replace the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who died suddenly in February after slightly more than a half year in office.
One example involved city foot dragging on the more than $100 million District of Eastover project off Interstate-55 that developer and commercial real estate broker Ted Duckworth was eager to get going on. A frustrated Duckworth finally came to the council to complain that the city’s Planning & Development office had not returned three weeks of calls from him.
Yarber, who was on hand to hear Duckworth’s complaints, met the next day with Duckworth. Soon after, the 585,000-square-foot mixed-use retail project was cleared for ground breaking.
“You’ll notice that since we’ve in office, dirt has been getting turned out there,” Yarber said.
Under the technical assistance shop strategy, a developer such as Duckworth would be assigned a city staff member to hold his hand from start to finish – “even to the ribbon cutting of the project,” he said.
The other example occurred by chance at the recent National Association of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas. While visiting the booth of Jackson’s Mattiace Properties, Yarber learned the city could lose a chance to fill the vacant Circuit City space on County Line Road over difficulties Conn’s HomePlus was having with City Hall on a sign permit.
Yarber said he made a few calls back to City Hall and “within 20 minutes” staff corrected the problem.
“A lot of our issues come from business owners and developers not being confident that this was a place interested in their business being here,” Yarber said, insisting it is a perception he intends to erase before leaving office.
The new mayor says he also is seeking to strengthen the city’s relationships with state government. So far, he said, he has persuaded Gov. Phil Bryant to have the Mississippi Development Authority assign one of its staff members to work directly with the city on economic development.
“This happened because we reached out to forge relationships,” he said.
While the late Mayor Lumumba had little interest in pursuing former Mayor Harvey Johnson’s ambitious “GO-80” revitalization plan, Yarber said he sees value in the Johnson U.S. Highway 80 strategy. He noted that as an alderman he supported the rezoning that banned new pawn shops, payday lenders, tanning salons and other such businesses from the corridor.
Any genuine revival of the stretch of highway from Pearl to Clinton hinges on redevelopment of the Metrocenter Mall, he noted. City and state offices occupy much of the mall which is still anchored by Burlington Coat Factory. Metrocenter, about 60 percent occupied with about 330,000 of vacant space remaining, has been on the market for $6.5 million for nearly a year.
Yarber said he heard some interest in the circa 1978 mall while at the National Association of Shopping Centers convention. “We met with a couple of folks who were very serious about purchasing and developing it,” he said. “We want someone who is serious about redeveloping a mall that is outdated and has been successful with that transformation process.”
With the tightened lending that accompanied the real estate collapse of the last decade, many retail complexes around the country are getting built through public-private partnerships. Yarber indicated he is less than enthusiastic about such arrangements, but noted he would not reflexively retreat from one. Any public-private deal must be weighted heavily in the city’s favor, he said.
“We want to be sure the skin we are putting in is tipped more to our side,” Yarber noted.
Those sorts of opportunities aren’t likely, he conceded, until the city upgrades its roads and utilities. He said he wants to go into those deals able to offer “the best water system in the state.”
Acknowledging that blight handicaps the city’s economic development efforts, Yarber said he wants to streamline the city’s cumbersome code enforcement process.
He is starting, he said, by eliminating the requirement to bid out the “grass and weed” jobs. Since these lot clearings typically entail charges of $600 or less, they can be awarded on a rotating contract basis.
“That will be happening before summer is over,” he said. “Again, it goes back to the idea that we will no longer be our own problem. Where we can streamline and cut red tape, we will do it.”