Jackson Free Press, September 4, 2013
On a recent trip to the William F. Winter Archives and History Building, a couple of enterprising reporters dug up some old pictures and articles about Capitol Street. A picture dated Jan. 20, 1967, taken from the West Street intersection looking east, shows a bustling business district with independent businesses lining the street.
There are people in the picture. There are cars in gridlock (without road construction). There is life.
As the caption on the now-tattered newspaper clip said, the picture “reveals a busy downtown artery with all the hustle and bustle of modern city life.”
A lot has happened since 1967, the year some of the conspirators who murdered three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County were convicted, and hardly any of it has been kind to Jackson’s retail scene.
Looking at the same street from the same view today paints a picture of what was, what is and what could be.
Jackson’s downtown retail is either flat, or moderately improving, depending on whom you talk to, but it’s not anywhere near the level of occupancy it once enjoyed.
The Flight of Retail
Stacy Mitchell, a Portland, Ore.-based senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said the decline is not exclusive to Jackson or southern cities.
“This has been a phenomenon that has been experienced across the country,” Mitchell said. “It began in the 1950s and ’60s as shopping malls started popping up on the outskirts of towns. By the late ’80s and ’90s, big-box stores started popping up. That really dealt a severe blow to a lot of downtown retail areas. As one business left, it made all the other stores suddenly a little less convenient than they were before, because you couldn’t fill all your needs in one area anymore.”
In Jackson and many other cities, the problem was ironically exacerbated by the end of Jim Crow laws: Black business districts such as Farish Street and Beale Street lost the bulk of their customers to shopping areas they were previously restricted from, and suburban malls grew to meet the demand of white families fleeing newly integrated public schools and, thus, the city. “Urban renewal” didn’t help, meaning that rows of previously successful local businesses downtown were razed for office buildings and parking lots.
Mitchell says savvy cities started doing something about the shrinking retail problem in the early 1990s, when they realized the migration of business was not healthy for the downtown economy. They reinvested in downtown and stopped putting all their infrastructure dollars into the far-reaching corners, chasing real-estate demand.
Meanwhile, Jackson was sluggish to respond to downtown’s needs, and instead, began to expand its borders to keep the people who were moving outward inside the incorporated city limits, but far from downtown.
Catering to the Day Crowd
The message from downtown’s business improvement district is rosier, however.
Downtown Jackson Partners spokesman John Gomez maintains that local stores and boutiques that cater to the business community are doing well there.
“Any retail we get right now is going to be niche retail,” Gomez said. “We’ve had some success with a few jewelry stores and office supply stores… stores that cater to that 8-to-5 business crowd.”
Gomez points to Carter Jewelers, which has been in the same location on High Street, on the edge of downtown, for 160 years. Unlike a startup, Carter has a clientele that travel from all over the state to purchase a product.
“What I think has hurt the business downtown is the city has shackled us with some really high taxes,” Carter’s owner Jerry Lake said. “Taxes have to be passed on in the form of rent, and I don’t know how some of these business are paying it. The city has been great to us over the years. We’ve worked with different mayors and the police protection we’ve been provided has been wonderful; our only complaint is the taxes.”
Lake paid $14,928 in taxes in 2012 at 711 High St., which has an appraised value of $486,120 and an assessed value of $72,918, according to public tax records.
Gomez said DJP is banking on downtown’s eateries and entertainment spots to help bring people back downtown after dark. Retail, he said, is more about daylight hours.
“Our numbers just don’t mesh with what we’re looking at,” Gomez said. “We’re trying to grow our culture and restaurants and bars to give people a reason to come back after 5 p.m. That’s where we are focused right now. We are also trying to convince someone to open up a small corner grocery, so we can support that residential growth.”
Some residents downtown say that, despite high residential occupancy rates, downtown can feel like a ghost town at night—perhaps due to many apartments owned or rented by absent or corporate tenants. Few residents, few customers for local drugstores, restaurants and gift shops at night.
‘None of This Is Easy’
Other cities have successfully turned their downtown areas around, and Jackson could be the next one to follow suit—with the right focus, organization and local will.
Mitchell said Jackson would probably benefit from a group she has worked closely with, the National Main Street Center, a non-profit based out of Washington, D.C., that has helped more than 2,000 communities reclaim their downtown area, creating $54 billion in investments and 450,000 jobs, according to the group.
“It’s a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” Mitchell said. “It’s worked in thousands of communities and has quite a successful track record. The way it works is a local organization gets created as a chapter of the Main Street Center, then organizers come in and work with the citizens in the community and civic leaders to come up with a decent formula for what to work on.”
Mitchell said another step cities can take, and Jackson apparently is in the process of doing, is to improve the quality of the streets and the infrastructure underneath them. On top of the $10 million makeover to Capitol Street, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba proposed a budget last week that will pump an extra $22 million into public works, bringing the city’s total expenses on public works to a whopping $398 million for the coming year.
“None of this is easy,” Mitchell said.
“There is a lot of evidence now, through consumer surveys and things like that, that show there is a growing interest in independent business and in walking and riding bikes for transportation. When I got in this business, those things were in a downward spiral. Cities can capitalize on these larger trends, they just have to have community and civic leaders who are dedicated to making it work.”
Jackson thought it had that in 1981. The potential was there, and still is. White puts it best:
“I used to tell my brother Hal all the time that we would see the revitalization of downtown in our lifetimes,” he said. “It’s happening, it’s just extremely slow. I still believe it will get there. I just begin to question whether I will be alive to see it.”
Reporter’s Note: An earlier version of this story attributed Richard Hart’s 1981 story to the Clarion-Ledger. It was reported in the Capital Reporter. We regret the error.