After several years without an executive director, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority (JRA) recently tapped Latoya Cutts to take over day-to-day operations of the agency. Cutts, who was former head of the development authority for Albany, Ga., holds master’s degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology and Troy State University, and a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southwestern State University. She recently spoke with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about her new role.
JRA hasn’t had an executive director for years. Why do you think they wanted one now?
“My understanding is that there have been some discussions about having an executive director in the past. The board is at a point now where it has some ambitious goals. But the board members, they have full-time jobs, and to do this work, they realized JRA needed a capable leader in a full-time role to help push its goals and initiatives forward, and to lead the organization to get things accomplished.”
What are some of the goals the board has set?
“One priority is developing a strategic plan. I’m not sure if it had one before, but the board is adamant about having one, and having me focus on our strategic process and a clear road map to show what JRA is working on, the areas where it is going to work, the higher-priority areas where it is going to work, and the organization itself.
“The other part is marketing and outreach. We have all these properties. We need to have an database to showcase these properties and a website to provide information on them, and to provide the public with information on what JRA is, what we do, what resources we have available and how we can work with various businesses on development.
“We also need to look at our urban renewal areas, and the areas where real work needs to be done to eradicate slum and blight. We want to work with the council to see if there are opportunities to create additional renewal areas, and on projects that can help better Jackson. The other thing is to maximize economic impact. We realize that Farish Street, Union Station and the Convention Center hotel are critical, and we want to focus on those and move those projects forward.”
How is JRA funded and what will be the agency’s budget in the upcoming year?
“Our operating budget is primarily funded through a city allocation, and is $2.4 million for next year.”
You mentioned working with the council to add new urban renewal areas. Where might those be?
“One area that was on the radar before but was never created was the Highway 80 renewal area. There has been conversations about that.”
Switching gears, I do want to ask about a convention center hotel. It seems like numerous efforts to bring in a hotel have fallen flat. How do you get that project moving again?
“We have to bring all the parties back to the table again, and make sure a market study has been done, and a feasibility study has been done to determine if there is a need, and what the development needs to look like. What is the best size of a hotel? The need from years ago to now may be two different things. We start there, look at the resources that are currently available – I know some of the land at the hotel site is owned by JRA, some is owned by the city, and some is privately. Being able to understand what additional resources we’ll need outside of land is important. Sometimes, we can’t pick up where we left off. We have to go back, reassess and put together a plan based on current conditions.”
Where do you see Farish Street in five years?
“I see Farish Street moving toward becoming a vibrant area again. Development takes time. You can have a project, someone can submit a proposal, but there is a lot of due diligence that goes into reviewing a proposal. It’s not just the idea but looking into whether the developer has the capacity to follow through on the idea, whether he or she has the financial capacity, and what they are looking for in terms of incentives or participation from the public authority. Being able to work and put a deal together, that whole process could take six to 12 months. It could be another 12 months before you see dirt turn. When you ask, ‘where do you see Farish in five years?” in the next 12 to 18 months, I hope to have more than a solid plan in place. I hope to see it a lot farther along from where it is now, in terms of seeing some of the vibrancy happening.”
What do you mean by vibrancy?
“Businesses actually in the buildings there. I wouldn’t say in five years that every building would be full. That ideally would be the goal, but I’m saying realistically, you could have a portion of that street with buildings rehabbed, businesses in there and activity happening. Right now, if you drive through there, there’s very little activity.”
What is the role of JRA?
“JRA’s primary purpose is to eradicate slum and blight. You know we can only work in those areas that have been designated as ‘urban renewal areas.’ Downtown, or the Central Business District, is one of those areas. JRA has the power to acquire property, rehab property, redevelop property and work with private developers to acquire property. We can work with public or private entities to help eradicate slum and blight in the area. In a lot of cases, if you have properties that are not contributing to the tax base, we want to get those properties back active so they are contributing.”
Tell me some of the projects you were involved in as redevelopment director in Albany.
“There was a microbrewery project we were part of. We owned an art park building, which was basically a building that was just walls, where people would come in and do public art. There were challenges with it and was closed down for a while. That space is now a microbrewery for downtown. Another project was a mixed-use development: 64 loft apartments that also had retail space on the bottom floor. There was also a riverfront retail space acquired by the authority, which was reconfigured … and was branded as “Front Street Market.” A lot of buildings there had been empty for a number of years. The Albany Museum of Art was another project I worked on. They have not started building the museum, but there was a big push to have it relocate to downtown. It was a big deal working on that project, getting approval from the museum board, the commitment in terms of negotiations with a private property owner for the property, and there is excitement about that project opening downtown.”
What were some of the challenges you faced in Albany, and are they similar to ones you see in Jackson?
“A lot of redevelopment happened in Albany after the flood of 1994. A lot of it was public projects, like a school board building and a federal courthouse, but a Hilton Garden Inn was also built. But in terms of seeing downtown reach its full potential, there was a stall where there was years of inactivity, and years of things not happening. There were several projects that started but did not move further along. After a period of time, people lose hope that something can turnaround. For Albany and Jackson, in terms of stalled projects, it affects the overall confidence of people willing to invest in an area and makes them skeptical of whether it would be a worthy investment. In Albany, there also was frustration with the redevelopment authority and a lack of confidence in its ability to get things done.”
You seemed to be involved in numerous major projects while you were in Albany. How was that lack of confidence in the redevelopment authority addressed?
“We had kind of the same thing happened that just happened in Jackson, with new board appointments. I think a lot of it has to do with making sure the board has abilities and experience related to the work we’re doing, such as being in business and being downtown. You also have to make sure that you have really strong processes in place, including processes that govern how the organization is run, how staff members are doing things, and what programs you’re administering. You want to make sure you have a proper structure in place, so that when you’re working with developers you can do your due diligence and have the information needed to help board members make good, sound decisions. Also, there has to be an alignment with the city and authority. We did that in Albany and that is happening here, too.”