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Rethinking Farish Street — Mayor, Jackson city council want to take over redevelopment effort

Farish Street_SHELLS_rgbJackson’s mayor and City Council say they want to begin calling the shots on redeveloping downtown’s Farish Street.

Voicing frustration last week with the years of starts, stops and legal entanglements that have marked the Jackson Redevelopment Authority’s handling of the now-dead redevelopment, Mayor Tony Yarber and the council say they want the entire project “rethought.” And they want to do the rethinking.

What the elected leaders come up with may look quite different from the two-block entertainment district long envisioned by the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, the autonomous city entity now responsible for the project and owner of the buildings under redevelopment. Entertainment would remain a dominant element, but other Farish neighborhood uses could come into play and transformation efforts would go beyond the two blocks that extend north from the corner of Farish and Amite streets.

“Let’s rethink some of this,” Yarber said in an update to the council on the seemingly snake-bit redevelopment effort that began early in the last decade and has been idled since fall 2013.

“Obviously, the idea of this being completely an entertainment district has not worked,” he added.

The mayor and council said the initial task is to find what residents and businesses along the several dozen blocks of Farish Street want, he said.

Yarber did not need to prod the council, especially council President De’Keither Stamps. “What I would like us to have are some conversations about who controls that property,” Stamps said.

“I want us to have that conversation,” Yarber agreed.

Stamps said he thinks the mayor and council “are poised” to lead on the direction taken on efforts to transform the former African-American shopping and cultural district into a visitor destination.

“I do believe we are poised to lead the future direction,” he added. “We’re the ones who are elected. We’re the people who are obligated to the constituents,” Stamps said.

The JRA board members are appointed by the mayor, with each member representing a City ward. The board sets its own budget and policies and hires and fires JRA staff.

Stamps said he thinks “things can get awry” when elected leaders delegate too much of their powers “to people who do not have that bond with the people, and accountability to the people.”

Margaret Barrett-Simon, a long time council member whose Ward 7 includes the Farish Street redevelopment blocks, said she is frustrated with the JRA’s tendency to take on legal battles. “You’ll notice we’re always ending up in court,” she said.

Court is where JRA lawyers were last week. They sought to remove $4.7 million in liens developer David Watkins put on the 70,000 square feet of buildings on Farish Street after the JRA removed him and his Farish Street Group partners as primary developers in October 2013.

Even if the lien dispute is resolved, the JRA must get a suspension imposed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lifted. HUD suspended the JRA in the fall after determining the redevelopment agency never certified itself to be eligible to receive the $1.5 million in HUD money used to purchase the buildings that make the Farish Street redevelopment area.

What’s more, the Mississippi Development Authority has not been repaid $1 million it put up to retire a construction loan from Trustmark.

In response to HUD’s demand for repayment of the $1.5 million, JRA board members have agreed to sell bonds to repay the money. They hope the repayment will lead HUD to lift the suspension it put on Farish Street and all other HUD-funded projects JRA has under way in Jackson.

Jackson lawyer Lance Stevens, who represents Watkins, said a pair of designations the two blocks of Farish Street has received – Entertainment Resort and Historic Preservation – limit what Jackson can do with the property.

The project received an Entertainment Resort designation in the middle of the last decade to allow alcohol sales by the clubs and restaurants that were to open in the two-block area. The Historic Preservation designation made redevelopment of the two blocks eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits. The designation, however, carried requirements for maintaining the historical and cultural integrity of the buildings and district.

“Every brick put in that district has to comply with historic” designation rules, Stevens said.

Mayor Yarber’s suggestion in a media interview last week that the Farish Street project is an “albatross” brought questions about whether he even wants to resurrect the effort. However, he expanded on his comments in his briefing of the City Council last week.

Farish Street’s reformation is like an old car that can run “but needs the right attention,” he had said. “Let’s not just focus on the two blocks.”

Watkins, who spent five years and what he says are millions of his own dollars trying to create the Farish entertainment district, declined to comment on Yarber’s expanded vision for Farish Street.

Stevens, his lawyer, had no reservations, however.

“If the City had lived up to its agreement to assist in the financing of the Farish Street Entertainment District, through the JRA, Farish Street would be a jewel in the mayor’s crown instead of an albatross around his neck,” he said.

“The City and its urban renewal agency have no one to blame but themselves for this epic fail.  The fabulous legacy of that historic area deserves better.”

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