CLARKSDALE – At a recent meeting at City Hall, Clarksdale citizens, including members of the newly formed Quality of Life Commission, had more questions than developers had answers about the proposed $52 million Corey L. Moore Sports and Recreational Complex.
Who’s involved, who’s on the hook for bonds, and is the project sustainable for a rural town like Clarksdale were among the key questions at the April meeting about the proposal aimed at bringing tourists and revenue to the Delta town.
The city officials unanimously agreed to move forward with the project when they created The Quality of Life Commission, an urban renewal agency that will oversee the venture and keep the city from having a direct role in the development.
But the promise that this project will not cost the city or taxpayers one cent didn’t sit right with some residents.
“That’s what they always say,” said Carla Kyle, Clarksdale native and retired accountant.
“But eventually it’s gonna cost the taxpayers somewhere. … I don’t understand how they can go and put that much money into one facility and not do something to beautify the town and to fix things. I do understand that Clarksdale needs something like this. There’s no doubt. I just don’t think they should spend that much money. They could take half of that money and do a lot for the town.”
‘A CHALLENGING PLACE’
Clarksdale is known for being the birthplace of the Blues, where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the infamous Crossroads intersection of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49, as well as home to many renowned artists including singer/songwriter Sam Cooke, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, and artist and entrepreneur Rick Ross.
Within the last decade, the population of Clarksdale, the seat of government for Coahoma County, has dwindled from almost 18,000 in 2008 to a little over 16,000 in 2016.
According to Mississippi Labor Market Data, out of the 82 counties in the state, Coahoma County has a 7 percent unemployment rate, putting it in the top 10 for joblessness. Mississippi’s rate stands at 4.3 percent compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.9 percent.
The major employers in Coahoma County are health care, social assistance and educational services, and retail trade, according to Data USA.
Mayor Chuck Espy envisions the complex as a once in a lifetime project that will bring revenue and jobs to Clarksdale.
“Everything is public record for people to vet out for themselves, and that’s where you do these things. You don’t do anything behind closed doors. That means that the likelihood of success would be far greater when everything is as transparent as possible. That’s what we’ve done with this project,” Espy said.
“I’m just proud of where we are with everything that’s on the table, and it is the model of using best practices and proven methods … the team members are highly qualified minds in the U.S. on the project, and to say that they came to Clarksdale is just a testament that we pulled out the best people and the best people are doing one of the biggest projects that Clarksdale will ever see in a lifetime.”
The proposed project would include a 120-room hotel, a 750-seat conference center, a “glorified, big swimming pool” that features a smaller water park, a zipline, a rock climbing wall, five synthetic turf baseball and softball fields and a small two megawatt solar farm.
American Resort Management, headquartered in Erie, Pa., would operate the water park, and Sports Facilities Management, an Illnois-based facility management firm, would operate the sports facilities, Dwan Brown told the commission. Brown is the founder of P3 Group, Inc., a development consultant firm that serves as co-developer for the project.
A private solar developer has indicated it will enter into a memorandum of understanding with the P3 Group to finance the solar farm with private dollars and not urban renewal bonds, Brown said.
“They’re gonna do that and actually enter into an agreement with the operator of the facility to provide the power back to the facility at a reduced cost,” said Brown.
But the hotel will be the “backbone” of the revenue source for the project.
There are similar sized hotels being developed in the state.
The Scion at West End, in Cleveland approximately 40 miles south of Clarksdale, is an $18 million 95-room hotel that includes a meeting space, restaurant, spa and pool set to open in fall 2018. It will be managed by Trump Hotels in partnership with Chawla Pointe LLC, a Mississippi-based company.
Another example is the $60 million 203-room Westin Hotel in Jackson that opened last year.
A smaller scale facility is the $2.3 million Travelers Hotel, a 20-room bed and breakfast co-op modeled after 3B in Brooklyn, New York, which aims to increase community development and stimulate job creation. Travelers Hotel, being constructed on Third Avenue in downtown Clarksdale, is set to open in early 2019.
Chuck Rutledge, one of the developers for the Travelers Hotel, has been involved in development projects costing $400 million, including seven hotels in New Orleans, Houston and Omaha, Neb.
The most critical and challenging component for any of these projects is the financing, he said.
“You can always find somebody to design them. You can always find somebody to build them, but finding somebody to finance them is a different story, especially in a challenging place like Clarksdale which again has good tourism trade, and it’s known internationally, but we need to grow that exposure and grow tourism. But convincing financing lenders and equity investors how strong that market is always a challenge,” Rutledge said in a phone call with Mississippi Today.
The Travelers Hotel has been in the works for three years, and it is financed through a traditional loan from Southern Bancorp Community Partners, historic tax credit investment from First National Bank of Clarksdale and a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Coahoma Collective, a nonprofit organization with a mission to catalyze arts-driven, community-inclusive revitalization in downtown Clarksdale, will own the hotel after five years of operation. Hotel profits will feed back into the nonprofit to fund community events and activities.
Rutledge and his two partners in the project are guaranteeing the debt and have personal risk in the project.
The prospective location for the sports and recreational facility in Clarksdale was the Sunbelt Industrial Park, located behind the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and owned by the Economic Development Authority.
However, the Quality of Life Commission agreed recently to enter into a land purchase agreement for 76.12 acres along Highway 61. The property is owned by Hopson-Nance, LLC., which is near the Sunbelt Industrial Park.
Brown said that the sales contract on the property was finalized. He added that the seller agreed to donate the land for the roads and streets to the city once they’re finished at no additional cost.
WHO IS DWAN BROWN?
Brown is the man who’s charged with answering the community’s questions. He is a Clarksdale native and has been a developer for 24 years, and although this is his first time working on a sports and recreational complex, he has worked in hotel development, subdivision development, and commercial real estate development across the country in Florida, Illinois, and Tennessee, he said.
But Brown has also had to work to overcome questions and concerns about his past. On December 18, 2002, a federal grand jury in the Western District of Tennessee indicted Brown on 72 counts that accused him of bank schemes. He pleaded guilty to two of them – bank fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States – and federal prosecutors dropped the remaining counts.
Brown was sentenced to two years in prison and served his time at a camp in Millington, Tenn.
Even though this occurred years ago, there are some who are still skeptical about Brown and the project. On social media, the controversy around Brown’s past had some feeling iffy about his involvement in the project.
But having known Brown on a business and personal level, Jamarlon Fair, business owner and native of Friars Point, said he doesn’t see why people are blowing this up.
“When you speak on a past or a person’s past, he’s a prime example that your past doesn’t determine your future. Everybody makes mistakes,” Fair said.
“I have to say he’s one of the most dominant people I’ve seen coming out of a crisis situation and make it good, so if anything, they need to be looking at him and everybody associated with him as motivation. I do, and I run two companies.”
When asked about community concerns about his conviction, Brown told Mississippi Today: “I don’t know what they expect for me to do. I’m not going to continuously rehash that, and I don’t see what purpose it serves because at the end of the day I’m not doing anything that I don’t have the authority or ability or the license or credentials to do. I just don’t see where it serves any purpose other than to distract from what otherwise would be a successful project. So, I don’t have any response to that.”
For Part II, about the details of the proposal, go here: