Low ProfileBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Notable successes and failures contribute to JRA’s history.
Since its inception, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority (JRA) has pretty much flown under the radar.
Although the agency generally keeps a low profile, at the same time it serves as lead redeveloper for the capitol city.
While the authority itself is relatively unknown, residents definitely know of its work. The authority has been involved in numerous projects across the city, from helping acquire land for the rebirth of the King Edward Hotel to helping acquire land for the Jackson Convention Complex.
Many projects have been hugely successful, while others have fallen flat. JRA has also been no stranger to controversy. One mayor wanted to do away with the group. The agency came under fire recently for the Farish Street redevelopment project and for the handling of vagrants at Union Station.
JRA was founded in 1969, to eliminate blight in the capital city. Its primary focus has been on “urban redevelopment areas,” mostly in downtown Jackson.
“We have some property on Highway 18. Developers gave JRA the property to develop,” said JRA Chairman McKinley Alexander. “It’s speculative ownership. We have to maintain it and insure it while we find someone to develop it.”
The authority is chaired by a seven-member board of commissioners, with one commissioner representing each of the city’s seven wards.
Members are nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council. In some cases, council members will suggest individuals for the mayor to nominate.
The Ward Seven representative, attorney Matthew McLaughlin, was suggested by Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay. McLaughlin was nominated by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and he was approved the council earlier this year.
Ward One is represented by Northside real estate broker John Dinkins.
Members serve five-year terms and are unpaid. Day-to-day business is conducted by the agency’s two full-time staffers, funded by JRA revenues.
At a meeting on Thursday, September 26, the council is expected to consider two new members to the board, Vonda Reeves and Alex Lawson. There are currently two vacancies on the board, with two other members serving until their seats are filled.
“We are not employees of the city. We’re like the Federal Reserve. We make independent decisions on how to best help the city with economic development,” Alexander said.
The agency has made decisions that are not politically popular, including refusing to back two previous efforts to build a convention center hotel.
The late Mayor Frank Melton even wanted to do away with the group, citing his frustration with them.
Chairmen oversee a budget of approximately $2.4 million, which comes from city allocations and revenues from property owned by the authority.
JRA owns about 17 properties, including three parking garages, the Richard J. Porter Building, the Warren Hood Building, the Atmos properties, Union Station, various properties in the historic Farish Street area and property across from the convention complex.
The garage at Farish Street between Capitol and Amite streets is leased to a private party; the garage at the corner of Capitol and President streets offers public parking, and also houses the Jackson city attorney’s offices and one private tenant. JRA leases the parking lot behind the Hood and Porter buildings to the city for employee parking.
“It’s far below what the market demands, but we did it to accommodate the city,” Alexander said.
City employees pay $20 a month to park in the spaces there. Typical parking fees in the city run between $80 and $100 a month, Alexander said.
Space in the Porter and Hood buildings are also leased to the city, while space at the Union Station is under lease to Greyhound and Amtrak.
“Those contracts were let by the city before they turned Union Station over to us,” Alexander said. “We don’t make any money – we were never intended to the way the contracts were let.”
A portion of the city’s annual allocation to the agency is designed to help offset costs for maintaining the station, providing security and the like.
In 2017, the agency came under fire for not addressing the vagrancy and maintenance issue at the travel hub.
The budget allocation is supposed to help alleviate those problems, Alexander explained.
JRA has several tools to eliminate blight and encourage development. In addition to buying properties, it can seek proposals for development, and issue bonds to help developers cover certain costs on projects.
Over the years, the group has acquired land for public and private projects, including the Mississippi Arts Center and Russell C. Davis Planetarium, the Mississippi Telecommunications Center (now part of the convention center) and One Jackson Place, among others.
It also helped pull together parcels on Pascagoula Street for the purpose of building a convention center hotel and is currently involved with helping choose a master developer for the site.
Nearly $7 million in federal Housing and Urban Development loans were used to pay for acreage.
The site is approximately 7.5 acres and sits across the street from the convention complex. Plans are to turn the area into a mixed-use development, complete with a hotel, retail and restaurant space, and residential units.
Previous efforts to bring in a hotel fell flat. In 2008, then-Mayor Frank Melton attempted to bring on Texas-based developer TCI to build a hotel and parking garage there. However, JRA rejected that firm’s proposal to build there.
TCI had previously asked the authority to issue between $90 million and $95 million in bonds to pay for the construction. That firm wanted to Jackson to backstop the loans, meaning if TCI was unable to repay the debt, the city would take up payments.
In 2013, then-Mayor Harvey Johnson said he had struck a deal with the Callen Group to build a $60 million facility there. In that case, JRA rejected the proposal because the project was not bid out.
Under state statute, a request for proposals must be issued before a private developer can purchase or develop publicly held land.
While the hotel project seems to be moving forward, other endeavors have been less successful.
JRA and developer David Watkins and the Farish Street Group (FSG) are currently fighting it out in court over the Farish Street redevelopment project.
Watkins was brought on to transform the historic corridor into an entertainment hub. However, JRA released Watkins for project delays, according to reports in local media. Watkins subsequently placed a $4.7 million lien on Farish Street properties to recoup losses for the work his group had completed. Improvements made by FSG included getting four buildings ready for tenant improvements.
The case is currently pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court, Alexander said.
Recent JRA Projects
• Iron Horse Grill – JRA issued $2.5 million in bonds for the project;
• Westin Hotel – JRA issued $9 million in bonds;
• King Edward and Standard Life – JRA owned the buildings, brought in developers for both;
• Jackson Convention Complex – helped assemble land for the center’s construction
• Federal Building – helped acquire land for the project;
• Farish Street – recently added new roof on two buildings there.