Arena a key piece to downtown vision, promoters say at rally

Downtown Jackson Partners, Chamber: Study will address feasibility of a downtown area

Ben Allen kept the focus at his  “Arena Rollout Extravaganza” held last Tuesday on the unity of purpose that it’s going to take to erect an $80-million-plus entertainment palace downtown.

The event was all about the arena, even to the point that Allen, director of Downtown Jackson Partners, made a bold pledge that “there will be a major arena downtown.”

But the arena is actually but one piece of a strategy that Allen and other community leaders have for making downtown Jackson a lot more than a commuter destination for day workers. Think of the arena as part of a troika that would include an expanded Jackson Convention Complex and a downtown football stadium for Jackson State University, Allen told the capacity crowd gathered in the second-floor Trustmark Room of the Convention Complex.

Allen didn’t say so specifically, but he signaled that the push to sell the arena to business and civic leaders as well as the public at large will center on how well the structure would complement other projects on the boards for downtown – and help to spur new hotel, restaurant and retail development.

“This works hand-in-hand with” an expanded Convention Complex and a new Jackson State stadium, Allen said, and emphasized the synergies envisioned between an arena and the Convention Complex have led the policy board and management of the complex to become “the biggest supporters of this project.”

Look at what Pearl’s Trustmark Park, home of the Double A Jackson Braves professional baseball team, has done for the area around it, Allen said.

The count includes five hotels, six restaurants and a big box Bass Pro Shop, Allen noted.

Allen sees the entire population of Mississippi as stakeholders in the arena effort, but stressed no plans have been made to seek state money for the project.

He said he expects the neighboring counties of Rankin and Madison will be direct partners and is counting on the public there to “embrace this.”

With the public behind it, the region’s decision-makers will follow suit, Allen predicted.

“I’ll sign it in blood – there will be a major arena downtown,” though he expects it will take 10 years to do it.

Allen has set a Dec. 31 deadline to raise $80,000 to begin studying the feasibility of an arena. So far, $53,850 has been raised through donations large and small, said Allen, whose agency is responsible for promoting and bringing new development and business to Jackson’s Central Business District

The money will go to a consultant’s study to be done in two phases.

Phase one will evaluate the demographics of the population that would use the arena, the economic impact the arena would bring, demand for sports and entertainment events and parking and transportation needs.

A second phase would be initiated if the initial phase concludes the area could support an arena. It would recommend the size, location and estimated cost of the building.

Populous Sports, a national sports business consulting firm hired as project facilitator, will coordinate the study with marketing firm Conventions Sports & Leisure of Dallas and Minneapolis.

The Arena Extravaganza opened in pep rally style with Jackson Chamber of Commerce Chairman Jonathan Lee proclaiming the arena effort “an exercise in expanding our realm of possibilities.”

Added Lee: “Ignore those who say it can’t be done.”

Lee said he thinks the study will grade the project a “go” and that the public will enthusiastically endorse moving ahead with it.

“This is not a downtown Jackson project or a business community project – it’s a public project.”

Patrick Hays, the mayor of North Little Rock, home of the 18,000-seat Verizon Arena, addressed the Extravaganza audience, taking time out from a National League of Cities meeting he was attending in Jackson. The arena has brought some of the biggest acts in show business to North Little Rock as well as helped to spur revitalization of the waterfronts on both sides of the Arkansas River, he said.

Within the couple-block area from the arena to the river, “we’ve probably got $2 billion” of improvements, including a $27-million trolley system, Hays said.

Michael Marion, manager of the Verizon Arena, paid his own way Jackson to endorse an arena here.

Before it erected the Verizon Arena and began booking the likes of the Rolling Stones and George Strait, the Little Rock area had an aging building of 10,000 seats situated on its fairgrounds.

“Sound familiar?” he asked.

He said in his many years as a concert promoter he often heard the lament that Jackson was a ripe entertainment market but lacked an adequate venue.

Lee King, a longtime concert promoter and founder of First Class Productions, said he has heard the same thing for two decades. “Jackson is 20 years late” on this, King said.

He said the rock star Prince wanted to do a stop on his farewell concert tour here to reconnect with the fans and friends he made earlier in his career,

But the Jackson Coliseum at the state fairgrounds could not accommodate the kind of show he did and the fans he could draw, King said.

Jackson’s positioning as a crossroads city gives it a huge potential to attract top acts that would like to make a stop on their way from one show to another, King said.

Allen of Downtown Jackson Partners noted that same geographic advantage earlier in the evening.

“No disrespect to Little Rock, but it’s not on the way to anywhere,” he said.

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