Year in Review

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Gluckstadt, zoo, airport, Costco among top news stories

From north to south and east to west, every corner of the Northside was busy in 2018, with major news stories coming from the Gluckstadt incorporation to the planned takeover of the Jackson-Evers International Airport.

In Jackson, major news stories included efforts to move the Jackson Zoo and replace its leadership, to the continued fight with the state over its efforts to do away with the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) and replacing it with a regional one.

Also, in Jackson, the city’s libraries continued to deteriorate, as did its infrastructure. On a brighter note, city officials were praised for their response to several major water crises, which resulted because of aging infrastructure and colder-than-normal temperatures.

While city leaders were praised, Northsiders jeered at least one state official who refused yet another effort to pass legislation creating community improvement districts (CID).

Farther north, in Ridgeland, opponents of Costco won a major legal battle in their fight to keep the wholesaler from coming to Highland Colony Parkway. That win, though, appeared to be more of a moral victory, as city officials and developers said the store was still coming in.

Gluckstadt and Madison County were also hotbeds of activity this year. Gluckstadt residents continued moving forward with incorporation plans, while the Madison County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA) continued to clean up the mess surrounding a 2013 airport study.

Madison County supervisors also had a good year, when efforts to acquire funding for the Reunion interchange finally paid off.

The past year also marked some national and local elections, meaning new leaders were elected to Congress and to several judicial posts.

 

Gluckstadt residents continued with the efforts to incorporate a roughly 11.1-square mile section of Madison County. The trial was originally expected to be held in August, but was pushed back to February 2019, because of several appeals.

The motion is being opposed by the city of Canton, which hopes to annex some of the same property, and Mac Haik, the owner of a car dealership located within the proposed Gluckstadt municipal boundaries.

The request was made because the dealership didn’t want to pay additional property taxes to either municipality.

Gluckstadt’s proposed city limits would include several Madison County subdivisions, including Ridgefield, Arrington, Red Oak, Bear Creek, Wildwood, Germantown, Panther Creek and Bradshaw Ridge.

Haik had asked a judge to be carved out of both cities’ proposed boundaries and had made a motion for court-ordered mediation.

That request was denied by Chancery Judge James Walker.

The first part of the Gluckstadt trail was held in the spring, to determine whether petitioners had enough signatures to move forward with the incorporation.

To move forward with incorporation plans, Gluckstadt was required to have signatures from two-thirds of qualified electors. The original petition for incorporation was filed on February 1, 2017. At that time, 73 percent of registered voters in the area had signed on in support.

If Gluckstadt is incorporated, Walter Morrison will serve as mayor, and aldermen will include Miya Bates, Krisstel Hunt, Jayce Powell, Stephen Snell and Lisa Williams. Chris Watson will serve as city planner, according to reports in the Sun.

 

While some expected the Gluckstadt matter to be settled this year, some also though 2018 would bring an end to the Costco controversy in Ridgeland.

Instead, the controversy surrounding the store continued to make headlines throughout the year.

Since developers announced plans to bring the wholesaler to Highland Colony Parkway, the store has sparked debate among residents.

Many opponents were worried the store would increase traffic along the parkway and at the nearby Old Agency Road roundabout. Others were concerned still with how the mayor and board of aldermen changed its zoning rules to allow the store to have a gas station.

Costco will be located on property zoned C-2 commercial. Under Ridgeland’s zoning ordinance, gas stations are not permitted under the classification. However, the city amended its zoning ordinance to allow stations as part of “large master plan commercial developments.”

In 2017, the board’s decision was appealed to the court system, and in mid-2018, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down changes to the zoning ordinance.

Instead of stopping the Costco, though, the store announced that it would be building its gas station across the street on property zoned C-3 commercial.

In the summer, another lawsuit was filed in Madison County Circuit Court, this time, with six residents asking for zoning amendments affecting the second gas station site to be thrown out.

Earlier this year, developers withdrew an application to build a storage facility on the site, after the city issued a moratorium on building new storage facilities and then amended its zoning rules to prevent the structures from being built on C-3 properties.

Opponents say the moratorium and amendments were also made specifically to benefit Costco, who was eying the site for an alternative location for the gas station.

Mayor Gene McGee, though, told the Sun the amendments were made to ensure the city didn’t have too many storage facilities built in Ridgeland’s gateway areas.

“We’re getting a handle on it to make sure we don’t have them everywhere, especially where people would have first impressions of the city,” he said. “We don’t want that to be storage facilities.”

As part of the new suit, opponents argue that the amendment should be made null and void, in part, because two of the aldermen voting in favor of them would benefit directly from the Costco.

The store was under construction and is expected to open in the spring, weather pending, McGee said.

 

As the fight to keep out a Costco continued in Ridgeland, the fight over a popular attraction in Jackson was just heating up.

In the spring, the Jackson Zoological Society announced that it was considering relocating to the golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

The announcement drew immediate backlash from Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and other city leaders and community activists who argued that moving the zoo would harm the west Jackson community.

Zoo leaders, though, argued that the zoo needed to move to survive. Since 2003, attendance at the park had dropped by nearly half, with many blaming the zoo’s surroundings.

The park is located at 2918 W. Capitol St., in what is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, according to police figures.

News for the zoo went from bad to worse, following the announcement, the zoo’s attendance continued to drop. Then, in the summer, Zoo Executive Director Beth Poff was forced to resign after it was discovered she had used state bond funds to help cover operating expenses.

The state had awarded the zoo millions over the years to cover infrastructure costs and the like. However, Poff admitted that she dipped into the moneys to cover salaries, animal food and other day-to-day costs.

As a result, the city was forced to repay some $350,000.

Meanwhile, the Lumumba administration announced plans that it would be seeking a new group to manage the zoo. Three firms submitted proposals to run the park, all of which were still being evaluated at press time.

 

Another topic making headlines in 2018 was the lawsuit involving the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

Jackson continued its efforts to prevent the state from taking over the airport.

In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature approved SB 2161, which would do away with the JMAA and replace it with a new board made up of state, regional and city leaders.

The decision was seen as racially motived by city leaders. JMAA is governed by a five-member board of directors, all of whom are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Jackson City Council.

All members are currently African-American. Meanwhile, SB 2162 was authored by white Republicans from Rankin County, and supported and signed by the white Republican governor, Phil Bryant.

This year, legal wrangling was mostly over finding out the motives behind the bill. Attorneys for Jackson have sought e-mails and other communications related to the bill, while the state has fought to keep those documents private.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Keith Ball issued the city a partial victory earlier this year, granting that certain documents related to the case could be turned over.

In September, the Sun reported that Bryant had filed an appeal of that decision to the U.S. Circuit Court.

State officials argue that releasing the documents could have a chilling effect on the state’s ability to discuss and craft laws.

Under SB 2162, JMAA would be abolished and replaced by a board with members appointed by the governor, Jackson mayor, Jackson City Council, Madison County board of supervisors, Rankin County board of supervisors and lieutenant governor. One member each would be named by the adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard and by the executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority.

The law also changed requirements for serving on the board. The governor’s two appointees, for example, must have a valid pilot’s license or certification issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The only qualifications of the current board is living in the capital city.

The law was slated to take effect on July 1, 2016 but had so far been blocked by the courts and the FAA.

 

Jackson-Evers was in the news for other reasons as well.

Developers of the Pinelands Lifestyle Center failed to enter into an agreement with JMAA to lease approximately 130 acres near the Lakeland Drive and Airport Road intersection. Freedom Real Estate was given an option to lease the acreage in 2015, but failed to do so, despite being given two extensions on the option.

 And recently, the Sun learned that the not only was the state attempting to take over the airport, but the city was gearing up to keep airport property from being annexed by Pearl or Flowood.

According to Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote, Pearl and Flowood were attempting to annex portions of the roughly 3,000 acres of airport land that is not part of the airport proper.

Jackson-Evers is located in Rankin County, bordered by Lakeland Drive, Old Brandon Road, Airport Road and the East Metro Parkway. Property not within the airport fencing is owned by the city but is not part of the city limits.

The airport itself is located in the Jackson municipal limits.

At its first meeting in December, the city council approved bringing on three law firms to represent their interests in their cases.

Foote told the Sun that by annexing the land, any sales tax dollars generated there would go to those cities. “They want to annex it, so if it’s developed, they can get the tax,” Foote said. “They’re anticipating this before any development comes in.”

In other airport news, a major contractor was likely facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for not meeting the deadline on a runway reconstruction project.

The firm, Superior Asphalt, had fallen months behind on a project to overlay the west runway at Jackson-Evers. The Superior was brought on in 2017 to mill and repave the strip, and work was expected to wrap up in July 2018. The contract was for approximately $17 million.

Superior was chosen through the blind bid process.

However, by December, airport officials were saying work would not be finished at least until February. JMAA Chief Executive Officer Carl Newman said the agency would be facing “liquidated damages” for not finishing on time. However, he did not know the exact amount Superior would face. Weather days and other unforeseen circumstances would also have to be worked in.

Under provisions of the contract, Superior would be charged $2,500 a day for each day the project was not completed by the project’s end date.

Meanwhile, several construction projects were moving along as expected at Hawkins Field, another airport owned and operated by JMAA.

 

While Superior was facing fines for that project, the Sun learned late fees would not be imposed on the firm for finishing late on a major road repaving project in Jackson.

Superior was hired in September 2016, under then Mayor Tony Yarber, to repave seven major city thoroughfares, including Ridgewood Road and Briarwood Drive.

The project called for completing rebuilding the streets and bringing sidewalks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The $4.7 million contract was problematic from the beginning. After several false starts, construction got under way in early 2017. Ridgewood was supposed to be one of the first streets to be overlaid but was pushed back because of delays from a subcontractor.

While there were some weather delays related to the project, the Sun reported that in 2017, Superior and its subcontractors missed several days of perfect paving weather.

Safety problems also resulted. On Briarwood, unfinished work created hazards for motorists near Chile’s restaurant. And in May 2018, Frances Anne Fortner, a student from Jackson Academy was killed when she hit an unsecured manhole cover along Ridgewood. The incident occurred near Venetian Way, within the footprint of the project.

Fortner was on her way to high school graduation rehearsal when the incident occurred.

A wrongful death lawsuit had been filed against, Superior, IMS Engineers and the city in Hinds County Circuit Court. IMS was the previous one-percent program managers, and initially oversaw the project.

IMS and Superior were funded by revenues from Jackson’s one-percent infrastructure sales tax.

Originally, the Sun calculated that Superior would owe hundreds of thousands in penalties for not finishing the roadways on time.

 

 One Lake, a major flood control and economic development project also was in the news this year.

A long-awaited draft environmental and economic feasibility study was released on the $355 million project this year. Almost immediately, the study and the results of the study fell under the scrutiny of environmental activists and political leaders.

However, an unlikely source was likely the project’s greatest detractor.

In September, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) issued a letter to the Rankin-Hinds Flood and Drainage Control District (Rankin-Hinds) discussing their concerns with the project.

The letter stated that the project could have catastrophic consequences on nine major bridges that run over the Pearl River, including ones along the busy Lakeland Drive, I-55 and I-20 corridors.

The project calls for the creation of a roughly 1,500-acre lake on the Pearl River from north of Lakeland Drive to south of I-20 near Richland.  To create the lake, the river will be dredged, and the dredge material would be used to build artificial islands and shoreline.

In its letter, MDOT said it was worried how the dredging would impact the structures.

“Our engineers looked at what was given to them, and what was given to them was not sufficient,” Hall said. “It does not protect the pilings. If you’re going to dredge it, where are you going to dredge it? How close are you going to get to the bridges?”

Hall said additional data was needed before MDOT could sign off on the project.

The study was sponsored by the Rankin-Hinds and funded by the Pearl River Vision Foundation.

Rankin-Hinds attorney Keith Turner said additional data would be provided.

Because local leaders hope to use federal dollars to help fund One Lake, supporters have to follow review guidelines spelled out in the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. In all, $133 million in federal dollars were set aside in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, which can be used for this project.

NEPA requires that the project be compared with other flood control alternatives for the area.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that One Lake would reduce flooding in the event of an event similar to the 1979 Easter Flood by 90 percent.

During that event, much of downtown Jackson, Northeast Jackson, Flowood and Richland were inundated. The same levees that failed the city during that flood are still in place today.

One Lake has been at the center of debate most of the year. Opponents are worried about how the project would affect endangered species as well as river flow downstream.

A weir would have to be created along the Pearl as part of the lake’s construction.

Supporters, though, argue that flow will not be impacted any more than it was when the Ross Barnett Reservoir was constructed.

 

Flood control aside, many Northsiders were concerned about water this year, particularly in Jackson.

The year began with a major water crisis, affecting residences and businesses across the capital city, and ended with what could have been a major water crisis, had not officials acted quickly to address it.

In late December and early January, two rounds of sub-freezing temperatures ripped across the area, causing water to freeze and mains across the city to burst.

Water pressure losses were reported across the city, and some schools and businesses were forced to temporarily closed.

In all, some 300 main breaks were reported, all of which were repaired between January 1 and January 30.

The repairs cost the city millions of dollars, but forced Jackson officials to implement new policies, which were used to address a major water main failure in November.

That incident occurred in Belhaven at the Myrtle and Laurel Street intersections. Failures in a 36-inch main caused water pressure to drop across the city and forced Jackson to issue a boil water notice.

However, the city was able to have a contractor in place in a matter of hours and have the main replaced within a couple of days, adverting a major crisis.

City officials were still determining what caused the main break at year’s end and had brought on Neel Schaffer Engineers to do a forensic evaluation of the breaks. On the Sun’s visit, the paper noticed two baseball-size punctures in the pipe’s joint.

 

Jackson’s water crisis went beyond the pipes in the ground, with city officials also having to address problems associated with the Siemens contract.

In 2012, the city brought on Siemens to do a complete overhaul of the city’s water billing system. The $91 million project was designed to, among other things, make bills more accurate.

Work included installing some 65,000 water meters, creating and installing a new water billing system, and making some water and sewer line repairs.

Major work wrapped up in 2016, but problems consisted. In the spring, then Finance and Administration Charles Hatcher told the city council that thousands of customers were not receiving bills, and that the water/sewer enterprise fund was about to go bankrupt.

Enterprise funds come from water and sewer usage fees, which are billed to customers on a monthly basis.

As a result of the crisis, Jackson asked the one-percent oversight commission to reimburse the city for $7 million in emergency water repairs dating back to 2016. The funds were used to shore up the enterprise fund.

In all, about 23,000 customers were not receiving regular statements, meaning Jackson was unable to collect on tens of millions of dollars in fees.

To help sort out the billing crisis, Jackson brought Siemens back on in April, who worked with city employees to address problematic accounts. Worked wrapped up October. 

And in November, the Sun reported that the city had corrected some 22,000 “stranded bills” and collected $3.2 million in outstanding fees.

As those bills were being corrected, though, about 7,000 new accounts become stranded.

Public Works Director Robert Miller suspected that the new accounts became stranded as a result of faulty equipment in the field and brought on additional contractor to address those problems.

 

While Jackson leaders made strides in addressing the city’s water issues, the Madison County board of supervisors scored a major victory in acquiring funding for the Reunion Parkway interchange.

In September, the Sun reported Madison County had received $8 million in state funding to fund construction of the interchange.

The massive project will create a direct route from Mississippi 463 to U.S. 51, and is expected to have a major economic impact for the entire county, District Four Supervisor David Bishop told the Sun.

“It’s a project that should have been completed a long time ago,” he said.

In 2004, Madison County’s comprehensive plan noted the need for the interchange to alleviate traffic congestion on the west side of I-55 and to help with growth on the east side.

In 2008, the county issued $50 million in road bonds, with $33 million to be spent on the interchange. At the time, the board said taxes would not go up to pay for the bonds, but that year increased property taxes by 3.33 mills.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation, though, wouldn’t let the project go forward, with Commissioner Dick Hall saying the county should fund the work with state dollars. However, the county sued MDOT after the agency refused to provide additional funding for the work.

In 2013, the county finalized a legal settlement with the transportation agency, which required MDOT to build the interchange when traffic warranted it.

 

Meanwhile, construction on the North State Street Reconstruction Project finally got under way.

The $19.6 million project includes rebuilding a roughly two-mile stretch of roadway from Hartfield Street to Sheppard Road, adding new multi-use trails and rehabbing the water and sewer lines underneath.

Construction got under way in late January, months after Hemphill Construction was awarded the contract.

In December, the city announced that it had completed work on the first phase and had moved on to the second phase, which runs from Hartfield Street to Choctaw Road.

 

Those projects were moving forward, but another project on the Northside was stalled thanks to new state regulations.

The Lake Harbour Drive extension project was expected to wrap up by the end of 0218. However, Ridgeland city officials told the Sun that the design process had to be restarted because of changes to the state’s “Redbook.”

The book outlines the review process for all federally funding projects. If the regulations aren’t followed, projects can lose federal dollars.

The extension is being funded with a $10 million earmark from Congress, as well as $3.3 million in federal funds awarded through the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District, as well as $1.5 million from the state and $1 million from Madison County.

A new Redbook was published in 2017, after Ridgeland had already begun a review of the project’s construction design documents. At the time, the city was operating under the previous Redbook, Mayor Gene McGee said.

The project now isn’t expected to be finished until 2020.

Even with the delays, though, the extension is expected to be well worth the wait. Once completed the extension will run from Lake Harbour Drive at U.S. 51 to Highland Colony Parkway south of the Old Agency Road roundabout, providing a new east-west corridor for the city.

 

News affecting the Northside was also made at the Mississippi Capitol, from the passage of new legislation affecting the capitol complex improvement district (CCID) to the lack of action on a bill that would give neighborhoods another tool to improve their qualities of life.

Among hot topic issues last year, many Northsiders wondered why the lieutenant governor wouldn’t support the creation of community improvement districts.

This year, members of the Jackson delegation again pushed for legislation to create the districts, and again the measure was killed by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Under the legislation, residents would be able to form special districts, tax themselves and use the revenues to make public improvements specifically within their districts.

Funds could be used for anything from beautification and landscaping to hiring private security to patrol the area.

The move was supported by more than 30 Northside neighborhood associations, Downtown Jackson Partners and the Jackson City Council.

However, the bill was double referred by Reeves, and died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Reeves wouldn’t support the measure because he considered it a tax and argued rich people could support their neighborhoods without passing such a measure.

Meanwhile, Reeves, who lives in what appears to be a gated committee, allowed several tax measures to pass.

As for the CCID, the state gave the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) the ability to issue up to $7 million in short-term bonds to support CCID projects.

The CCID was established by lawmakers in 2017 to help Jackson offset costs for providing municipal services, such as fire and police protection, to state-owned facilities.

State-owned facilities do not generate property taxes, meaning the city receives no compensation for providing the services.

Under the CCID, Jackson will receive $3 million in fiscal year 2019, $6 million in fiscal year 2020, and around $9.2 million a year in fiscal 2021 and each year after that.

The funds will be set aside in a special account to be used specifically for infrastructure and other public projects within the CCID boundaries.

DFA is responsible for determining how to use the money, with the input of an advisory board made up of city and state appointees.

Also concerning the CCID, DFA brought on Waggoner Engineering to help draw up a master plan for the area.

The districts take in a large swath of the capital city, including parts of Fondren, Belhaven and Northeast Jackson.

While the CCID will benefit the entire capital city, Fondren will benefit from the creation of the Fondren Business Improvement District (BID).

Land and property owners within the district voted overwhelmingly to approve the BID this fall.

The district runs from the North State Street and Old Canton Road intersection north to Glenway Drive, and runs along Lakeland Drive.

Landowners in the district will pay a special assessment along with their annual property taxes, which will be used basically to enhance city services. Among approved expenditures, BID funds can be used for private security, landscaping and the like.

Early next year, Fondren leaders will take the next steps to form the district, including establishing a board of directors and filing incorporation papers with the Mississippi Secretary of State.

Fondren proved to be busy in other ways as well, with the near completion of a multi-million-dollar streetscape project, and the beginning of a new hotel on North State Street.

With all the construction, parking problems in the area were further exacerbated. City leaders are planning to install parking meters in the district to help alleviate the problem.

 

Those successes aside, local officials pointed were quick to point the finger in what one Jackson council member called a “colossal failure.”

In October, staff members inspected the Charles Tisdale Library and discovered that black mold had infected the branch’s book collection, a sign that nearly all of the 34,000 books there could be lost as a result.

City and library officials were quick to point the finger, with Jackson-Hinds Library Executive Director Patty Furr blaming the city council for the problem.

Tisdale is located on East Northside Drive and closed in April 2017 after heavy flooding caused a black mold problem there to grow out of control.

Since its closure, the library system attempted to find a new location for the branch, but no efforts had come to fruition.

Meanwhile, some 34,000 books were left at the library to rot, and thousands of school children in the Broadmoor area were left without a library.

The branch logged some 60,000 visitors a year prior to its closure, including thousands of children who visited the branch to study and take part in afterschool programs.

“It’s not just about the books, but about an important part of our city,” Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay told the Sun. “We have a library that’s missing in an area that’s surrounded by schools and neighborhoods that not only need books, but the services the libraries provide.”

In other library news, The Eudora Welty Library’s second floor remained off limits to the general public, per orders from the state fire marshall. The branch is the system’s flagship, but is falling apart. Library administration officials have moved out of the branch and into temporary offices to escape black mold. And the Hinds County Emergency Operations Center, which is located in Welty’s basement, was looking for a new home because of the building’s conditions.

 

In other news, 2018 meant the end of storied careers for several community leaders, and the completion of a new shopping center in Madison.

Northsider Ben Allen stepped down as president of Downtown Jackson Partners after being in the position for roughly a decade. He previously served on the city council, including one year as council president. Allen told the Sun in a magazine interview that he hoped to become irrelevant and spent more time with his family.

Duane O’Neill, also a Northsider, won’t have to time to become irrelevant, even after retiring as president of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership. The longtime leader will continue to serve on various boards, including the one-percent infrastructure sales tax oversight commission.

John Noblin, the longtime director of the Mississippi Blues Marathon. also stepped down. He is being replaced by Premier Event Management. 

Then, in Belhaven, Casey Creasey took over as executive director of the Greater Belhaven Foundation, a neighborhood group that serves Belhaven and Belhaven Heights.

And with the mid-term elections this year, Northsiders will begin 2019 with several new judges. Jeff Weill is being replaced as Hinds County Circuit Judge by State Rep. Adrienne Wooten, who defeated Northside attorney Matt Allen for the post. Weill, who served two terms as judge, ran for Mississippi Court of Appeals, but was defeated by David McCarty.

In other news, construction recently wrapped up on the Crawford Farms shopping center in Madison. Work on the 119,000-square-foot facility got under way in 2017 and wrapped up in the summer of 2018. The center is home to a Hobby Lobby and Academy Sports.

 

 

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Two area high schools have started what will be an annual competition to raise money for waterfowl conservation.