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New telecom center: Once built, who will come?

More questions than answers in wake of announcement

JACKSON — Less than a week before the Jackson mayoral primaries, the Mississippi bond commission approved moving forward with the $17.5-million telecommunications conference and training center.

The announcement and the timing of it led the business community to wonder: Why now? What happened to renovating the King Edward Hotel? Will this substitute for the long planned convention center? How does it tie in to the Farish Street project? And what companies have committed to using it?

“The timing? I really don’t see any need to address that,” said Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who will face challenger C. Daryl Neely, Ward 5 city councilman and a Republican, in the June 5 general election.

“My function is to be mayor of this city, and to do the kinds of things to move the city forward, and this is one of those things. If anyone thinks I could control the Mississippi Development Authority, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, the State Department of Finance and Administration and the bond commission, they wouldn’t give any credence to that argument. This was simply another step in a process that we started some time back. We’re glad to get it behind us. We’ll be moving ahead with other projects, and we’re not going to pay attention to any political criticism to keep us from implementing those projects,” Johnson said.

Jack Garner, a member of the state’s Telecommunications Conference and Training Center Commission, and president of The Ramey Agency in Jackson, said the linchpin that expedited the center’s development came after plans to renovate the dilapidated King Edward Hotel were “ultimately deemed unworkable.”

“For the first several years the commission was in existence, its members worked diligently to link the development of the telecom training and conference center to the rehabilitation of the King Edward Hotel,” said Garner, who was not an initial member of the commission.

“Efforts were based on the thinking that it was necessary to have a hotel physically contiguous to the center. But in the last year, the commission traveled and visited other conference centers, and came to the conclusion that it was not a necessity for the conference center to be physically linked to a hotel. We then started looking at the development of the center as an independent project. Once we did, we became convinced that we could build the telecom conference center as a stand-alone facility and it would be successful as such,” Garner said.

The 75,000-square-foot center, which will be located near the corner of Pascagoula and Farish Streets, will be designed to accommodate meetings for technology and telecommunications groups.”

“Once we settled on a location, and settled on what we thought was a vision, we set forth a business plan and began to follow the lengthy process,” said Malcolm White, a member of the telecommunications commission and co-owner of Hal & Mal’s in downtown Jackson.

That process included the approval of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state department of finance and administration and finally the state bond commission for the authorization of bonds to finance the acquisition of land, development of plans, and actual building of the facility, Garner said.

Johnson said the Jackson Redevelopment Authority is selling to the state at fair market value, but an appraisal has not yet been ordered. The state will retain ownership of the property, and the telecom commission will assume responsibility for its assets.

Even though no contract has been signed, the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau will probably be the managing agent, said Johnson.

“Right now, the only thing that’s certain is the size of the facility and the wiring,” said Wanda Wilson, JCVB executive director. “Before we can start selling the use of it, it has to be designed so users can know exactly what is available.”

The next step in the process: the state will let the bids on professional services.

“I’m on a subcommittee to deal with that, but we haven’t had our first meeting yet, and we don’t have one scheduled,” White said May 9.

So far, there are no commitments for the center’s use.

“We haven’t received any commitments, but we haven’t requested for any, either,” said White. “We’re not there yet. We have general commitments from the telecom cluster, Jackson State (University), UM (University of Mississippi Medical Center) and other entities that have voiced concerns and written letters of support, but we haven’t started booking anything yet, or hired a manager.”

Johnson said a convention center for Jackson is still “most definitely” in the works.

“What we see as an adequate size convention center for the city of Jackson is 400,000 square feet,” he said. “This facility will not replace the convention center, but it will allow for a place for smaller meetings, conferences, training sessions.”

Wilson said the telecom center would not provide enough space to “fill the void that Jackson has in actual meeting space.”

“This telecom center, with high-tech wiring throughout the building, is still a major coup for our market,” she said.

Johnson said JRA recently signed a memorandum — not an official contract — with Proforma, a Memphis-based company that helped develop Beale Street, and is working on a downtown redevelopment project in Shreveport, to assist the city with the $1.5-million Farish Street redevelopment project.

“It’s exciting to see it all coming together, with the tie in of the Farish Street revitalization, the entertainment district specifically, and the renovation of the Union Train Station,” Wilson said. “Coupled with the telecom center project, it will really give us something to market and sell for the west end of Capitol Street in downtown Jackson, which is what we need.”

In the meantime, questions surrounding the future of the King Edward Hotel continue to swirl. Garner said its status was never a part of the mission of the telecom commission.

“Its ultimate use or disposition does not involve the commission,” he said.

Repeated calls to the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, the city planner’s office and the state department of finance and administration, asking for details of the project, including a property estimate and a timeline, were not returned by press time.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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