By Ayesha K. Mustafaa
Jackson is not the only capital city suffering from massive flight to the suburbs or surrounding counties, and it is not the only city with shortfalls from a local tax base that would keep it viable and attractive for future and sustainable growth.
However, there are projects on the table that were initiated with the intent to “turn downtown Jackson around” and make it a great place to live in, shop in and do business in. Old Capitol Green, one of those projects, described its “master plan” for downtown Jackson development, positioned adjacent to the Old State Capitol.
The prospect, according to developer Full Spectrum South is “to bring a new urbanism to the under-invested area via a mixed-use residential and pre-leased commercial space that would in turn support a viable retail community.”
According to Carlton Brown, a founding partner and CEO of Full Spectrum of New York, and the lead planner in the Old Capitol Green (OCG) project, “The world is changing and people now live in ‘walkable cities’ with close by retail. The more sophisticated landowners know that.”
Brown recently said in an interview with The Mississippi Link, “Regarding Old Capitol Green, we want to stay focused. This is a 14-square block area, and we have a master plan for the area. The first lots are for residential, then retail and office rental space that we can prelease. There are two other investors.”
Explaining some of the delays to the project, Brown added, “I think in some cases what happens is the private sector that has to bring in capital can be out in front of the public sector. Trying to get them on the same page of a public-private partnership is one of the great challenges.
“That not only is what is going to make our project work but also make other projects work. We are still focused on it and still have a lot of supporters and are trying to move it forward. It can be frustrating sometimes.”
The frustration Brown is feeling comes behind reports that the Hinds County Economic Development District may be seeking to use $20 million in state funding that was designated by the legislaturefor OCG for other development projects coming to the county.
Brown said, “Here is what we are looking at doing. While we are waiting on the county, the state and the city and everyone to make some real commitment regarding the $20 million already designated for OCG for infrastructure, we expect to be talking to a couple of other project landowners.
“Meanwhile, we really want to get the county committed to the money the state legislature passed for the project. When they pulled the plug, we were about five to six weeks from doing a closing on the whole financial structure on that first site called 1822 Square.
“It is pretty complex financing with four or five projects involved. If we get a positive sign from the county that they really want to move forward with this, then we will go back to the same players and try to get it lined up again.
“The good thing is that Congress extended the new market tax credit for another 10 years. The timing on it is what is important. But we can’t start that process until we know that the county is committed. The last I’ve heard is that the county is going up to the state legislature to try and take that money away from Old Capitol Green and put it into another developer’s project.”
When asked what his company put into the project, Brown stated, “In our project OCG, we have put in nearly $3 million. Some bad information is out there that we had put no money into the deal and that we were asking the county to put in more money. There is a whole lot of misinformation going around.
“One of the things that hampers a project is when there is bad information out there. Even with good information, there are going to be problems but you can work through them when everyone is shooting straight. We are doing incremental development and the housing with retail is the first part of it,” said Brown.
State Sen. John Horhn who previously supported the project and said he still supports the Old Capitol Green.
“I see no reason to change the legislative commitment to Old Capitol Green. Full Spectrum has long-term leases in place on the state property.
“They have expended nearly $3 million on plans, designs, acquisition and legal fees associated with the project. Entergy, a major property owner in the target area, remains committed. The project is huge and would have a tremendous impact on downtown Jackson. And I’m told that they may be looking at developing a smaller residential piece to build momentum,” Horhn said.
Businessman Leland Speed, CEO of East Group Properties, was asked his assessment of the OCG project. He responded, “Carlton Brown has a great idea. Some people want to see before they believe. They’ve heard promises before. I am not opposed to any projects but I am in support of OCG.
“I would like to see the project phase in reasonable increments – starting with downtown housing. We have seen this work in lots of other places. In Jackson’s downtown, there is a waiting list for residential housing. It is a real opportunity.”
Also responding to the question of support for OCG, Dwayne Oneil, president and CEO of Greater Jackson Partnership, said, “We, the Greater Jackson Partnership, are still in support of the Old Capitol Green Project. Our support is there and over the course of two years, sometimes things change.
“We would like to see more coming from OCG. It is a great project and funding needs to be in place and shared with all parties with some interest in the project. I’m not sure of what else is needed other than support. We want to help development in the city of Jackson whenever we can.”
Malcolm Shepherd, local manager of the Full Spectrum South and the OCG project, expressed his frustration based on news he received that a new developer wanted the money already granted by the state for the OCG project.
The following questions were posed directly to Shepherd regarding the OCG project.
Q: What signal would this send to the business community if the funds were taken from the Old Capitol Green allocation?
Shepherd: It would send the wrong signal. Not only does it send the wrong message to the business community, but we think it is a slap in the face of the citizens of Hinds County and the city of Jackson. They will not accrue the jobs, they won’t accrue the payroll. They will not have the opportunity to gain any initial sales revenue from the retail outlets that would be brought there.
This also says to investors that “someone can come in and take your project away from you because of personality conflicts.” But I think there is a wider issue associated with it and that is you have an African American developer coming to the state of Mississippi with the history that we have.
Q: Is this developer for OCG from Mississippi?
Shepherd: Carlton Brown, a Princeton University graduate and founding partner and CEO of Full Spectrum of New York, grew up in Jackson and is a graduate of Lanier High School. I grew up in Jackson and am a graduate of Brinkley High School and Jackson State University.
So you have “home boys,” if you will, developing significant projects in the city of Jackson, which historically has not been very friendly to African Americans – I don’t have to tell you about the discrimination and those type of things….
But in these modern times, you would think that a company that comes in and spends almost $3 million, comes in and pays for a master plan, a company that comes in and pays for rezoning of 50 acres of land that we don’t own, a company that comes in and does all of the economic modeling and actually certifies what we have been talking about in terms of mixed use development in downtown Jackson would be treated fairly….
The OCG residential units all have waiting lists downtown. We told the County there are 4,200 residential units waiting for downtown. We also said that green office space is needed for downtown. Offices there already are vacant because they have not kept up with the changes in the market and in the construction industry.
Q: Jackson is a city made up of 70 percent African Americans, and Hinds County is 68 percent African American. What is it you want to see done for Full Spectrum by the citizens, by elected officials? It would help if they understood what you are asking for. Also what is it that the Hinds County Board needs to do to help move this process forward?
Shepherd: What we would want the Board and the District to do is follow through on the commitment for the public-private partnership that we were initially selected to do. We are not asking for a hand out. As you can see, we have already been successful in getting a $20 million low interest loan committed to this project.
We spent almost $3 million of our own money on this project. I was once told by a Economic Development director that “you have to have skin in the game.” So far, we are the only skin in the game.
We simply want to follow through on a way to make use of the $20 million in a fair and equitable manner to Old Capitol Green and to Full Spectrum. That is ultimately what we want. We are not asking for anything that is not already on the table.
We want the elected officials who have been working with us to continue to support us, push us and make us work hard on this project like we have been doing. Make us produce the models that will answer all of the questions and provide all of the guarantees to the county, to the city, to the state of Mississippi.
We are not asking for any more than what was already on the table and primarily developed by us. As for the people of Hinds County, we are a part of this community. For the last six or seven years, we have supported employment opportunities here. We have been involved in the community.
At Jackson State, we’ve had urban and regional planning Master’s program level students involved and working with us every semester. We have made a $2 million commitment to Jackson State out of this development in Old Capitol Green.
That is the largest single commitment by any private sector company to the largest university located physically within the city of Jackson. The University Medical Center is significant but Jackson State is an urban university and is part of this community.
This is the kind of commitment that we want businesses and companies moving into Jackson to have, and we are part of that. Carlton Brown serves on the Development Foundation at Jackson State. He has been working at One University Place with some other developers. We want to make Jackson an example of what an urban oriented mid-size community can be.
It requires all of us to be a part of that. That also means that we have to look at new ways of doing things, have new developers come into the market and be creative with the financing. We could have solved these long standing issues a long time ago, had we not the kind of history we are known for in this city and in this state. The only people who can change that are us.
Q: What about the retailers who have committed to moving into Old Capitol Green. You have been courting them and several have been looking forward to moving into your development for the past three, four or five years. What are they saying and what are you saying to them as far as when that can happen?
Shepherd: Primarily, we get calls every week. Between the two buildings, we have about 15,000 square feet of retail space; we have more retail tenants than we have actually space.
We are telling our tenants who are biting at the bits to get into this 1822 Square to simply work with us. Our commitment is already here; we are going to do 1822 Square. We are going to do other developments in Old Capitol Green by partnering with other landowners and developers.
The information that we have provided from the studies demonstrates that there is a reason that the city of Jackson has increased in population over the last couple of years. And over a quarter of those people are represented by the increases in residences in downtown Jackson.
So when you have a residential increase and all the benefits that go with it for downtown jobs’ creation, you also have a corresponding increase in retail.