With his lawsuit against the City of Jackson behind him, developer Don Hewitt says he will pursue new local development opportunities, including building a convention center hotel.
His big hope, he said, is that the new leadership at City Hall and on the JRA governing board will bring a less combative atmosphere that allows him and other local developers to be seen as potential partners rather than adversaries.
“There are a group of local developers who all have an interest in making things happen in the city of Jackson,” he said. “It makes sense to sit down with them rather than shooting them in the foot. Let’s sit down and see what we can make happen.”
For now, Hewitt and his Advanced Technology Building Solutions partners “are very interested” in taking on a developer or development partnership role in a convention center hotel project, he said. “I have a number of partners who are ready to invest money in Jackson.”
But, he added, “They see that if I can’t get anything done, why should they put their money in Jackson. Unfortunately, unless they [City Hall and the JRA] wake up and realize what they are doing, nothing is going to happen in Jackson.
“Every time we get started on something, we meet with resistance from the JRA,” he added.
Hewitt’s criticisms of a 2011 bidding process for the convention center hotel led to strife with former Mayor Harvey Johnson and the loss of a $5 million Jackson Redevelopment Authority loan to buy downtown’s Deposit Guaranty building and convert it to mixed use. He responded with a federal lawsuit charging the mayor and JRA violated his free speech rights.
The result: A $600,000 jury award.
The Guaranty Deposit deal was not the only one Hewitt said he nearly closed with the JRA before Johnson stepped in and stopped it.
He said Advanced Building Technology Solutions made the only response to a JRA proposal for development on about three acres at State and Pearl streets. He proposed market-rate apartments with ground-floor retail.
Johnson, according to an affidavit from Advanced Building Technology Solutions general counsel Herb Irvin, entered the picture. Irvin said at an Aug. 1, 2010, meeting with then-JRA Director Jason Brookens, Hewitt and several City Hall department heads, Johnson vowed that “for the next two years and nine months or as long as I am mayor, this project is not going to happen.”
Irvin’s affidavit states that Johnson told the gathering that he did not want people driving into Jackson and seeing “underwear and clothing” on clothes lines and “on balconies in this building.”
Brookens then stated the JRA would reject the proposal and issue a new request for proposals for a class A office building.
The JRA is now leasing the corner lot for surface parking. Hewitt said he hopes the JRA at some point will do a new RFP for the property.
Meanwhile, Hewitt said beyond the convention center hotel, Jackson has strong potential for development, especially throughout its medical corridor along State Street and Woodrow Wilson.
“Ideally, that’s where the City needs to be focused right now. I would love to be part of the medical corridor,” said Hewitt, a 1993 Tougaloo College graduate who founded a company in 2004 to help developers find capital and started his own development company in 2010.
Hewitt’s investment company, Commercial Finance of America, won a U.S. Treasury Department designation in June 2013 as a Community Development Entity. The designation allows the company to apply for New Market Tax Credits, a valuable incentive tool for funding development projects.
Hewitt said he has not noticed any momentum by City Hall to get projects going along the medical corridor, even with new state incentives that give developers state and local tax breaks.
“We should be putting our heads together and saying, ‘“Where do we start.’”