Home » MBJ FEATURE » Downtown Jackson still battling problems with perception issue

Downtown Jackson still battling problems with perception issue

As owner of Steve’s Downtown Deli, Steve Long has served up his signature soups and sandwiches to hungry professionals for eight years in downtown Jackson.

And he’s happy right where he is on the corner of Congress and Pearl streets, despite losing a significant amount of his customer base when Cellular South vacated the Capital Towers building and moved to suburban Ridgeland.

For Long, it’s about location, location, location.

“I’ve considered moving out and finding a spot in the suburbs, but I earned my reputation for the last eight years here in downtown,” he said. “I’m committed fully to being here, at least for the time being. “

Is there a game plan to retain existing businesses like Steve’s Deli, attract new businesses and/or lure companies back to downtown from their new suburban digs?

“Our role is to make sure people know about downtown Jackson,” said John Gomez, associate director of the Downtown Jackson Partners. “There isn’t a game plan, so to speak, to ‘back-fill’ available offices in the downtown area, but we do want to be a tool for property owners and work with them to help them make good decisions and feel great about their investment in Jackson.”

Despite the current soft office space market, Gomez says downtown investors are encouraged by the $1.5 billion in developments that have been completed or near completion in downtown Jackson.

“Like any metropolitan area, we’ve lost tenants to the suburbs,” he said.  “However, the owners (Duckworth Realty) of Regions Plaza are working hard to back-fill those extra office spaces vacated by businesses that have chosen to leave.”

Contrary to popular belief, said Gomez, the perception of crime in downtown Jackson is just that — a perception.

“Crime is not an issue,” Gomez said.  “It’s more of a nuisance.”

One downtown restaurant owner disagrees, saying crime continues to be a problem in the area.

Debbie Rankin

Debbie Rankin

Basil’s owner Debbie Rankin said her Congress Street restaurant, located across the street from the Governor’s Mansion and catty-corner to Smith Park, has been broken into twice this year.

“The city has got to clean-up the riff-raff in the downtown area,” she said.  “There’s a lot of homeless wandering around and I’ve witnessed prostitution activities going on in Smith Park.  Businesses continue to leave downtown because of fear.

“With all the money being spent on development in downtown .. until the City of Jackson takes care of the problems, people are going to continue to leave.”

Despite her frustrations with the city and businesses leaving, Rankin said she’s committed to downtown.

“I’m staying,” she said.  “Jackson isn’t really different than any other urban cities. I’m not going anywhere.”

Gomez said the office space occupancy rate in downtown has traditionally hovered around 90 percent, adding that the Downtown Jackson Partners are working to expand both employment opportunities and the tax base throughout DP’s business improvement district.

It is no secret that the city’s tax base has eroded over the past two decades, fueled in large part by urban flight and the increase in real estate occupied by state government buildings.

“Over 40 percent of real estate in the City of Jackson is now non-taxable,” said Gomez.  “In 1998, the State of Mississippi had 800 parcels in place – now the figure is 1,800.  There are so many public buildings and the city needs help.”

Gomez said that the Partners are putting together a property tax study to present to the governor and Legislature.

“It’s a delicate issue, and we don’t want to seem like we are clamoring for money,” he said.  “We’re still working to finish the study, and we hope to take it to lawmakers in the near future.”

The State of Mississippi should explore the potential benefits of leasing office property from private owners, in lieu of buying or constructing new buildings, said Matt Forsyth, leasing manager for Parkway Properties, a Jackson real estate investment trust specializing in office properties.

“It would make sense for the state to consider the many options available from private owners before incurring the expense of purchasing or constructing a building,” Forsyth said.  “Leasing property could potentially be more cost effective for the state in the long run, while freeing up capital for other productive economic development state-wide.”

Potentially, said Forsyth, the most important driver of tax revenue for downtown is the continued surge of new development and the revitalization of existing downtown properties, like the King Edward Hotel, and the Plaza, Electric 308 and Standard Life buildings.

“With the spin-off businesses that will be generated by such development, the City of Jackson will see a substantial increase in tax revenue over the coming years,” he said.

By NASH NUNNERY I STAFF WRITER
nash.nunnery@msbusiness.com

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