First bricks laid at downtown Jackson art lofts

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R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

State, city and development officials lay the first ceremonial bricks for a lofts project in downtown Jackson.

There are many stories about downtown Jackson’s Capitol Street.

Gov. Phil Bryant remembered visiting Capitol Street, once the capital city’s center of commerce, in his youth.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber said his great-grandfather, born in the early 1900s, had to skip over Capitol, where shops refused to serve black patrons for much of the 20th century.

With downtown’s latest development, local leaders hope to write a new story about Capitol Street and the potential for public-private economic development projects.

“That saga is about to come to fruition,” Yarber said.

The saga is the Capitol Art Lofts, a 31-unit residential space located across the street from the historic King Edward hotel.

Jason Thompson, who owns Fahrenheit Creative Group, a marketing firm located across the street, said he is intrigued by the possibility of increased traffic and improved aesthetic value in the area.

“I am still wondering what the overall economic impact will be particularly for service-oriented business. We have to start looking at what kinds of projects will create a net benefit for future long-term growth and that are more inclusive of the needs of all Jackson residents and not just very small sections and fragments of the city’s population,” Thompson said.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

The future Capitol Art Lofts in downtown Jackson.

On Monday, local and state officials argued that housing investment provides the foundation for economic stabilization. Their comments came at a ceremonial brick-laying for the project, first announced in 2012 by New Orleans-based HRI Properties, which also redeveloped the King Edward and nearby Standard Life Building.

Bryant attended the ceremony, before heading to Hattiesburg to survey the destruction of tornadoes in the Pine Belt, and pointed out that the Governor’s Mansion sits a few blocks to the east, on the same street as the development.

Financing for the $10.4 million renovation includes low-income housing tax credits as well as historic tax credits, both state programs.

Government budget woes have plagued the development at times. In 2014, the state ran out of low-income housing tax credits before approving developers’ request for the credits. Another setback came when the state’s historic tax credit program ran out of money and had to be reauthorized in 2016.

With those budget woes continuing — Bryant recently ordered $51 million in state budget cuts — some leaders say the government will have to be more judicious in the use of tax incentive programs, measuring their effectiveness and, in some cases, get more creative in how public-private deals are structured.

Sen. David Blount, a Democrat who represents downtown Jackson, said tax credits should be awarded only to projects that would not happen otherwise.

“Tax credits for other projects that the private market can handle without government intervention should be handled by the private market, but when there are projects that are not economically feasible but for government involvement then it’s an appropriate policy decision,” Blount said.

Yarber said the city can no longer bank on formerly reliable government programs to put economic development deals together.

“We’re having to be a lot more creative. What I mean by that is you can’t just go at it alone anymore,” Yarber said. “You can’t just look at having an allocation from CDBG (community development block grants) as the only kind of investment. You have to look at how do you bring in other things, from Home Corp. or other investments that come from federal monies.”

The Capitol Art Lofts does not use community development block grants, which the federal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administers, but the city of Jackson has used the grants for other economic development projects. President Donald Trump and his secretary of Housing and Urban Development nominee, Dr. Ben Carson, have criticized some HUD programs.

“I’m especially worried about CDBG considering the tone that the new administration has taken about it,” Yarber added. “We’re going to continue to make our requests and keep our fingers crossed that folks in Washington will do the right thing.”