A vision for the first revamp of downtown Jackson’s Smith Park in more than 40 years is taking shape.
A project committee of downtown business leaders hope to raise private money to secure a contribution from state government for a $2 million redo that involves opening up the 2.4-acre park’s visibility and access, building a new bandstand and eliminating water features.
The park is situated between Congress and West streets and is immediately north of the Governor’s Mansion.
Planning for a new-look Smith Park began about six years ago, during the mayoral administration of the late Frank Melton, according to Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, a public-private entity created to enhance downtown and promote it as a work, live and play destination. After Melton’s death, new Mayor Harvey Johnson took over the Smith Park project but let it languish.
The late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba gave downtown leaders a green light to resurrect the park renovation. Tony Yarber, who became mayor after Lumumba’s death in early 2014, followed with similar support for the private sector effort, Allen said.
“Mayor Lumumba embraced it. Tony Yarber embraced it,” he said.
The project’s landscape architects Madge Bemiss of and Robert Poore of the firm Native Habitats, designers of the Art Garden at the Mississippi Museum of Art, prepared a concept design for Smith Park. The concept grew out of a series of public sessions held several years ago in the Jackson offices of engineering firm Neel- Schaffer Engineers, according to Allen.
“This is simply the concept,” Allen said of the drawings produced by Bemiss and Poore. “The committee loved it” and suggested the design go forward as presented.
Fifty-four trees would be removed from the center of Smith Park under the concept design. Allen said many of the trees that would be removed are diseased and dying. “We’re planting twice as many as we’re taking out,” he added.
The current band shell would be replaced by a bandstand in the center of the park and close to sidewalks that would be widened on Amite Street. The new band stage is to be designed by Jackson music promoter Arden Barnett.
The water features added in the 1974 revamp include small ponds and fountains with an Art Deco look. These will be removed, Allen said. “That is the first thing the City asked us to do.”
The fountain, which recently under a $56,000 pump repair, is useless and the ponds “are full of beer cans and filthy,” he added.
Allen said Downtown Partners, funded by a small tax on properties with the downtown Business Improvement District, will offer to do some maintenance and provide some security at the new-look park.
Though no time has been set for starting the park work, Allen said it would benefit both the state and city to have an attractive place for school children and others who visit the new Mississippi History Museum and Civil Rights Museum to picnic. The nearby museums, situated between Jefferson and North streets, are scheduled t o open in mid 2016.
According to a history provided by Downtown Jackson Partners, the site of Smith Park was originally donated to the state of Mississippi by the United States when Jackson was chosen in 1821 as the state capital. The park was officially established on Feb. 16, 1838, when the Mississippi Legislature voted to dispose of all unsold land given by the federal government “… except such blank squares as deemed necessary to be reserved as commons, for the health, ornament, and convenience of the city of Jackson.”
For the next 45 years, the square remained an open park for general recreation, frequently attracting wandering livestock, which was not unusual in such cities of that age. In May 1883, Jackson’s mayor and board of aldermen adopted an ordinance authorizing the mayor:
“…to solicit subscriptions of cash or donations of material for the purpose of putting a suitable fence around the square owned by the city in the rear of the Executive Mansion, and that he purchase a deficit of material needed, and at such time during the summer as he may select.
The park is named for James J. Smith, a Scottish immigrant and Jackson hardware store owner, who became a millionaire iron stove manufacturer after returning to Scotland before the American Civil War. He donated money to fence the park in 1869 and his son later donated iron benches.
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