By JACK WEATHERLY
A number of trees, some diseased some dead, were removed over the weekend as the start of $2.5 million plan to renovate Smith Park in downtown Jackson.
The park in recent years has become an oasis with problems.
It is a home base for the homeless, whose presence day and night discourages use of it by the general populace.
It is across the street from the Catholic Charities at 200 N. Congress St.
A woman was sexually assaulted Oct. 3 in a parking lot used by Catholic Charities at that address.
The incident that occurred at about 6:30 p.m. was followed shortly by the arrest nearby of Mitchell Lamar Drake, 45, according to The Clarion-Ledger.
Maureen Smith, public information officer for Catholic Charities, on Monday declined to say whether the victim was an employee, for fear that might lead to identification of the victim.
Downtown Jackson Partners, which, along with Friends of Smith Park and the city of Jackson, is heading up the effort.
The timing of the attack and the starting of work on the park is coincidental, Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, said in an interview Monday.
Yet, “clearly, we have a vagrancy problem at Smith Park,” Allen said.
But the removal of 54 trees that were dying or are dead is based on recommendations of an arborist and is part of a plan developed in 2013, Allen said.
“It’s supposed to be a public park. We’re going to open up a civil rights and a history museum in less than a year. We’re going to have 30 or 40 school buses of schoolchildren every day with a sack lunch, and they need a place to eat it.”
“We needed to open that park up.”
John Ditto, chairman of the Friends of Smith Park, said in a release that “the goal of the Smith Park renovation is to create a world-class public space that will help spur development in downtown Jackson while enhancing the Capitol Complex.”
He said the tree removal will cost about $30,000 to $40,000, but the fund-raising still has a long way to go.
The coalition has approached the Legislature for the past two sessions about being included in a bond issue, and while they were initially encouraged in the 2016 session, the project was left out, Allen said, adding that federal and state avenues of funding are being explored.
Allen remains head of the Downtown Partners after being in indicted in March on counts of theft and embezzlement from the organization. Allen, a former Jackson City Council member who has headed DJP since 2008, is accused of stealing nearly $55,000 of the public-private partnership’s money and misusing another $190,000 in a 10-count Hinds County indictment.
T he DJP’s policy board immediately pledged to “vigorously fight” to clear Allen, who said Monday that motions to dismiss the charges are still pending.
Meantime, churches in downtown and elsewhere continue to bring food to the homeless in the park.
Their efforts have had the unintended consequence of giving them a reason to hang around the park, a national expert on downtown revitalization said in September 2015 at a Jackson program
Yet Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton, senior pastor at Galloway United Methodist Church which abuts the northern end of the park, said at the time that “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.”
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