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Expert challenges perceptions of downtown Jackson

David Lewis (left) talks with Josh McManus after McManus' speech. Photo by Jack Weatherly.

David Lewis (left) talks with Josh McManus after McManus’ speech. Photo by Jack Weatherly.

By JACK WEATHERLY

Josh McManus said at the beginning of his speech at the Team Jackson luncheon on Monday that he was prone to make controversial statements.

He did not disappoint.

Two examples:

Detroit is misunderstood and is on the rebound.

By feeding the homeless, churches in downtown Jackson create unintended consequences by giving street people reason to hang around.

McManus  said he came early to Jackson.

“I was the one guy walking around downtown” over the weekend, he said to laughter from the attendees of the gathering at the Railroad District.

McManus is a nationally recognized expert in revival of post-industrial cities.

That includes Chattanooga, which had problems similar to Jackson’s.

With the help of civic leader Mai Bell Hurley, who died Sept. 4 at 87, McManus was able to establish Create Here, a grass-roots effort by artists, artisans and entrepreneurs who filled a gap that enabled Chattanooga become a “24/7” city.

Jackson-Downtown_landscape_feature_rgb“I would say Jackson is an 18/5 city,” McManus observed.

“You have to redesign the game in a way that allows unusual suspects in,” he said. “I’d much rather have a thousand little companies . . .  than one big one who feels entitled to be here because they made a lot of promises at the get-go.”

Mai Bell Hurley and a small group of people in the late ’70s decided to try to reverse the course of the city, which had been losing population, notably in the 18-35 age group, just as Jackson continues to do, McManus said.

Chattanooga has regained its population and $7.5 billion has been invested in it, he said.

McManus now lives in Detroit and works for Dan Gilbert, an entrepreneur who has deep Detroit roots. Gilbert is founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender, and is majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 “He is also betting big on Detroit, spending $1.3 billion to buy and renovate more than 60 downtown buildings to create a tech and entertainment hub in the Motor City,” Forbes.com reported. McManus said the number of buildings has now reached 73.

Detroit reached a population, including residents and commuters, of about 3 million the early 1950s and now it has about 600,000, with 90,000 vacant properties, McManus said.

McManus recounted his version of Detroit’s history.

 It grew to its peak population and industrial output primarily because its role in producing war materiel, not automobiles, he said.

“I would implore you not to believe the b****s**** your hear about Detroit. It is not a failure of the automobile business, it is not a failure of African-American leadership, it is not a failure of unions. It is simple economics.” The auto industry never accounted for more than 35 percent of the city’s industrial output. “The rest was the arsenal for democracy production.”

After the World War II, what happened was “strategic disinvestment by the federal government.”

“It’s really America’s largest military base that never got decommissioned.”

Detroit became the largest U.S. city to ever file for bankruptcy protection, which was granted in 2013, from which it emerged  in December 2014 after writing off $7 billion in debt.

The population shrinkage robbed the city of its young, college-educated residents. Chicago had more than 100,000 college-educated residents in its downtown and Detroit had, 7,500. The first goal is to double that number by the end of 2015. He said later that about 5,000 have been added to date, and that he is optimistic that the goal will be achieved by year’s end.

With the beginning of the comeback, the national attention was invariably drawn to the successes of white-owned businesses, he said.

But with a population roughly 85 percent black, “we said, ‘well, we’ve got to fix that’” to reflect the racial makeup of the city.

Small, established black businesses were offered grants from a foundation, usually about $10,000 each, he said. “Banks will not loan $10,000. It’s too expensive to write that paper.”

One grant allowed a barber shop to rebuild old clippers, which McManus said are of better quality than new versions, and distribute them to other black-owned barbershops, which helped their businesses.

In response to a question from the audience about homeless people, he said they are an unintended consequence of churches downtown feeding them.

Yet the prescription is to “stop worrying about the homeless population,” he said, it’s a matter of ratio. If more people are in downtown to work, live, dine and seek entertainment, the less the homeless numbers will matter.

Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton, senior pastor at Galloway United Methodist Church, said, “We would love to end homelessness.” Galloway, with its membership of 2,000, takes up an entire city block that is on the north side of Smith Park, a popular gathering place for the homeless.

“We didn’t create the situation, but we are having to deal with it” as a Christian duty to help “your neighbor, which we believe is everyone you meet on the path.”

He said that while some of the “unintended consequences” are negative, others are positive. Sometimes feeding someone can be the first step on helping him return to get a job and reenter the mainstream, he said.

About Jack Weatherly

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