Archive

Archive for the ‘Jackson’ Category

New councilman Whitwell talks arena, local option sales tax and city budget

February 16th, 2011 No comments

Quentin Whitwell won Tuesday’s special election to represent Jackson’s Ward 1 on the City Council, after former councilman Jeff Weill was elected last fall to the Hinds County Circuit Court bench.

Magnolia Marketplace had a phone conversation with Whitwell Wednesday morning, just before he headed to City Hall to polish up some paperwork in advance of his swearing-in on Thursday.

We talked about the downtown arena and the local option sales tax legislation Jackson leaders are attempting to push through the Legislature. Here’s what he told us:

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. essentially took over the arena project late last year from the private entities that had been pursuing it for a couple years.

The city’s action was not met with much enthusiasm from the private sector. Johnson responded to that by saying that the private sector would have to be involved if a downtown arena were to become a reality.

Whitwell acknowledged that there is an inherent mistrust between Johnson and Jackson’s business community that was developed over Johnson’s first two terms.

“That’s something we have to get over,” Whitwell said. “I definitely believe this is an opportunity for the business community and the city to actually get things done. Whether we agree with the mayor every time or not, he is the mayor. I think it’s a positive, not a negative.”

The bill that would allow Jackson voters to decide via referendum if they would accept a 1 percent sales tax whose revenue would fund water and street infrastructure repair and maintenance has cleared the Senate and sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. As the bill reads now, hotels and restaurants, to go with retail food sales and cable and satellite TV service providers’ income, would be exempt from the additional tax.

“My fiscal conservative nature tells me that we are looking at a $300 million budget that is bloated,” Whitwell said. “There are a lot of things that can be cut. I’m not one of those people looking for more dollars in general.

“Having said that, I have been a vocal supporter of the optional sales tax for seven or eight years, going back to working with (Ridgeland) Mayor Gene McGee when he was president of the Mississippi Municipal League.

“I believe that the optional sales tax is a good measure because, No. 1, it’s ‘optional,’ and No. 2, the local government knows best what projects will make it successful,” Whitwell continued. “If Jackson is successful at passing this bill, I think it could be very good and it could free up additional monies (should 60 percent of voters approve it). But I’m going to be a watchdog over the taxpayer money. We already have a pretty high tax system and I think we need to be finding areas to be lowering taxes to start drawing people back into the city.”

When we asked Whitwell for specific things he thinks could or should be trimmed from the city’s budget, he mentioned the overhead associated with administrative departments and their staff, whose hiring process he called “the friends and family plan. I think that needs to be examined and cut significantly.”

““In 1990, our budget was $100 million,” he said. “It was projected then that our budget 20 years later would be $200 million. Since then, we’ve lost enough citizens to fill the city of Vicksburg, about 35,000 people. Yet our budget has increased an additional 50 percent of what was projected. What that tells me is that we’re spending more money than we really should spend.”

Water issues inflame old tensions

August 18th, 2010 No comments

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and Gov. Haley Barbour have engaged in a letter-writing war over the State Bond Commission’s refusal to issue $6 million in bonds to improve the city’s water system.

Twice this year, all or parts of Jackson have gone without water service due to problems with the pipes. In January, a hard freeze left most of the city without for several days. Portable restrooms were placed outside the Capitol for lawmakers in session. The MBJ offices set up temporary shop in a Madison hotel. Earlier this summer, a relatively new water main burst at the main treatment facility, cutting off service for several hours, mainly in the northern part of the city. Magnolia Marketplace’s house was one of the ones affected.

Johnson is miffed that the Bond Commission, of which Barbour is the chairman, voted against the $6 million bond project, even though the Legislature passed it and Barbour signed it as part of an omnibus bond program this past session. Barbour countered that the $6 million alone amounted to a drop in the bucket when it came to the overall cost of repairing and upgrading Jackson’s water infrastructure, and encouraged Johnson to seek a low-interest loan through the Department of Environmental Quality.

This latest conflict raises anew the decades-old tension between Jackson and state government. The majority of Downtown Jackson is made up of state buildings, which pay no property taxes but receive city services.

There have been a few attempts by Jackson officials over the years to institute a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program to help offset some of the costs the city incurs in providing services to those state buildings. They have gotten nowhere. It’s a hard sell for a North Mississippi lawmaker to spend money on something that won’t benefit his constituents.

Budgets at every level of government are shrinking, a symptom of the depression. Lawmakers, especially with an election year coming up, are averse to any kind of new spending that might lead to a tax increase. On the other hand, Jackson is running a budget deficit and could surely use the money.

This water flap will most likely get resolved. If it doesn’t, you can take this to the bank: If and when the water pipes burst this winter, Barbour and Johnson will blame each other. Meanwhile, the rest of us will suffer.

District at Eastover hits another snag

April 2nd, 2010 2 comments

We’ve been following the District at Eastover, a mixed-use project Jackson developer Ted Duckworth wants to build on the site of the Old Blind School, for six months now.

To be honest, the project seems cursed. Duckworth and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann reached an impasse late last year in their negotiations to hammer out a lease deal. Then, the Legislature tweaked the legislation governing the parameters of the project to allow the state to sell the land instead of lease it. Duckworth said at the time that he couldn’t pursue the project unless he could buy the land.

So things finally started looking like they were gathering momentum until yesterday afterrnoon, when Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed the bill allowing the sale of the land.

“Without the authority to lease the property, the bill would have essentially required the sale of the property at a time when commercial property prices are at historic lows,” Barbour said in his veto message.

Barbour also wants a provision inserted into the bill that would give the state the option of leasing the land, instead of allowing it only to sell it. He also took issue with the clause that would have given the state the right to buy back the land after 10  years if conditions of the development had not been met. “But the bill did not specify the purchase price,” Barbour said. “It is not clear to me whether the repurchase price would account for any improvements made to the property, which would certainly deter potential buyers and lenders alike from investing and developing this property,” Barbour continued.

On the bright side, Barbour said in his veto message that he would include revamped legislation in a special session, if necessary, when the Legislature returns April 20 to finalize a budget for fiscal year 2011.

When this project first hit our radar last fall, it seemed like a win-win. The Old Blind school sits in the middle of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state — Eastover — and is not generating any revenue. Because of that, Magnolia Marketplace was convinced a deal would emerge quickly. But valuable land is still being wasted. Maybe there’s still some political paranoia over the state entering into an agreement — whether it’s a lease or sell — with a private party after the disaster of the beef plant. What is certain is the state has a chance to get a much bigger return off the land than what it’s getting now, which is nothing.

This makes entirely too much sense not to get done.

Waterfront property in Downtown Jackson?

December 9th, 2009 1 comment

Just got out of a lunch gathering in Downtown Jackson Partners’ new marketing center, where DJP President and CEO Ben Allen performed one of his patented, high-energy routines.

But the biggest news came when Jackson Developer David Watkins, whose  King Edward project is set to open this week, took the floor and laid out what would be the most ambitious economic development undertaking Jackson has seen in several decades, maybe ever. Basically, it involves a mile-long, concrete-lined canal that winds through downtown from its beginning at Farish Street, also a Watkins project, and ends in a 35-acre lake on Court Street that connects to the Pearl River. One side of the lake would feature a mix of apartments and condos. A gospel music museum and a civil rights museum, which is currently planned to go up at Tougaloo College, have been thrown out as possibilities at the canal’s Farish Street beginning.

Did we mention it was ambitious?

Anyway, Watkins said the Riverwalk Canal and Town Lake is in the extremely early planning stages. His best estimate at a cost is $200 million, which would have to include public money probably in the form of bonds. Watkins said the project could be done in four to six  years, but admitted it would probably take “10 or 12″ to actually complete once the Jackson Redevelopment Authority and the City of Jackson take it over. Watkins hopes to turn it over the city some time in the next 30 days.

There would have to be some property acquisition to make this happen, plus the environmental impact studies and flood control issues. Those processes can bog down pretty easily.

We’ll have a more detailed look at this in our E-Bulletin Thursday morning. For now, we have to wrap some things up for next week’s paper edition of the MBJ.

Categories: Economic development, Jackson, News Tags: