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For four decades, Mississippi newspapers have trumpeted the promised rebirth of what was once the central business district for Jackson’s African American community — Farish Street.
In those years, almost nothing has changed.
Years of legal battles, political infighting and other missteps have not only cost the capital city an opportunity to give Farish a semblance of its former glory and attract new revenue to downtown, but it has also cost millions of dollars.
More than $51 million has been spent or committed to Farish Street and historic renovation projects related to it since 1980, when the neighborhood earned federal historic designation, according to a Mississippi Today-WLBT analysis of financial records, media reports and historical documents related to the Farish Street district.
Of that sum, at least $22 million was allocated specifically for Farish Street’s redevelopment, between federal grants, city infrastructure funds, state bonds and developer investment, according to government documents.
Another $28 million in mostly tax credits and developer equity went toward historic restoration and economic development projects that included the Farish Street district, although it’s unclear how much was spent on Farish Street itself.
But supporters of a reimagined Farish Street could have renewed hope with the conclusion of a six-year-long legal fight between a developer and local officials — as long as there’s a clear vision and buy-in from the local community.
Dorothy Davis, a longtime resident and community leader, believes that various proposals over the years to convert Farish Street into an entertainment mecca similar to nightlife hubs in neighboring Memphis and New Orleans have been misguided and failed to seek input from neighbors.
“To me, it would have been the desert with just one little stream of water running through and that was going to dry out very quickly — and that’s why we fight so hard,” Davis said. “This is not Memphis. I want Jackson to be Jackson. Why don’t we lead for a change instead of always trying to follow or imitate? It’s the capital. Let’s lead.”
‘A little Mississippi culture’
The literature on the rich history of Farish Street could fill a small library. Once considered the heart and soul of African American life in Mississippi, Farish Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
“Historically significant as an economically independent black community, the Farish Street Neighborhood Historic District is the largest such community in the state,” the district’s application to join the register reads. “The area retains historical associations with black professionals who achieved prominence on state, local, and national levels; black businessmen who owned their own shops; and black craftsmen who constructed many of (the) buildings in the district.”
Farish Street’s stature as an icon for black Mississippi excellence has fueled various attempts to redevelop the district, all of them unsuccessful. But understanding why begins with understanding the various actors and their roles over the years. In the center is the city of Jackson, led by its mayor and city council. Then there’s the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, created in 1968 to promote economic development in the city.
The redevelopment authority, which is governed by a seven-member board, can borrow money for projects; it also selects the developers. When the city’s redevelopment agency borrows money, the loans are backed up by the city’s credit rating; if a project fails to make money, Jackson and its taxpayers are on the hook.
Over the years, the redevelopment authority has backed projects such as downtown’s convention center and parking lots, as well as the renovations of Union Station, the King Edward Hotel and Standard Life apartment building.
About $5 million was spent on Farish Street in the 1980s and early 1990s, mostly federal grants for the city to spend on community development, records show.
Much of the modern Farish Street saga — the bulk of spending — began in the late 1990s, when the city of Jackson received an injection of federal cash to redevelop low-income neighborhoods, including Farish Street.
In 1997, the city tasked managing the project to the redevelopment authority, which used $460,000 of a grant to buy four properties, records show.
By 2001, the redevelopment authority had acquired most of the properties on a two-block strip of Farish Street between Amite and Hamilton streets, paying $1.5 million for 17 properties. There, planners envisioned an entertainment district that would draw locals and tourists and provide needed tax revenue for the capital city.
“This would be a perfect place for people to come and get a little Mississippi culture,” a farmer named Joseph Martin told the Clarion-Ledger in 2001 after the city purchased the properties.
The redevelopment agency spent a total of $2.6 million in federal grant funds during this period acquiring property and prepping the district for development, documents show. Businesses on the strip at the time included Peaches Restaurant, Dennis Bros. Shoe Repair Services and Big Apple Inn, a famous pig ear and smoked sausage spot. The longstanding Peaches, famous for its soul food and community hub, has since closed leaving yet another vacant storefront.
By all accounts, little happened until 2002 when JRA hired a group called Performa Mississippi LLC, a spin-off of Performa Entertainment, which earned notoriety in economic development circles for redeveloping Memphis’ Beale Street. Performa’s goal was to do the same for Farish Street by leveraging the area’s deep musical roots.
Following nearly a decade of mayoral turnover, construction delays, finger pointing and legal fights, the project screeched to a halt. However, during this period, the state loaned Farish Street Historic District $3 million, documents from the Mississippi Development Authority shows.
Farish Street renovations were also part of multi-million-dollar bond packages in 2003 and 2009, records from the state treasurer’s office list show; however, the documents do state how much would be used for the district.
A now-defunct group called Farish Street Historic District Neighborhood Foundation also received approximately $3 million in community development block grants and loans to restore shotgun homes; those houses were later bulldozed.
A question of vision
At the core of the Farish Street debacle is vision: Would it be Jackson’s version of a Bourbon or Beale street? Or should it be something else more in-tune with the district’s history and surrounding community?
Mukesh Kumar, who served as the city’s planning and development director from 2017 to August 2019 between stints teaching urban planning at Jackson State University, said planners failed to think through the potential for Farish Street. He added that developers focused more on a one-size-fits-all approach and paid little regard for the district’s community needs.
“What often matters from the design perspective is that you need to have clarity on what you intend the space to serve as,” Kumar said, adding that downtown areas need to be thoughtful about the approach and the kind of environment they are trying to create.
“Downtowns in that sense need to have higher level of flexibility, creativeness, accommodation and diversity of all kinds. If they don’t have it and they keep aiming it as, ‘This is exactly what we are going to do,’ that normally has not produced very good outcomes, no matter which part of the country you’re in,” he said.
According to media reports, Performa promised a $12 million entertainment district, but it’s unclear how much money was actually spent during this time period, other than the initial half of the state-allocated $6 million in loans. The group also cut ties with Beale Street in 2010 after litigation with Memphis.
Next, the redevelopment agency turned to a man many people considered the most visionary developer in town. David Watkins made a name for himself by leading the 2009 redevelopment efforts of the historic King Edward and Standard Life buildings, which helped reshape downtown. Watkins formed the Farish Street Group, which consisted of several prominent Jackson developers, financiers and attorneys.
Neither Watkins nor his attorney, Robert Gibbs – also a Farish Street Group partner – responded to multiple requests for interviews or comment from Mississippi Today and WLBT. However, court documents and the developer’s communications with the redevelopment authority piece together a complicated story of how Farish Street redevelopment again stalled.
In 2010, the city’s redevelopment agency and the Farish Street Group signed an agreement that would transfer control of several Farish Street properties to the developers. The crown jewel of Watkins’ plan was building the first B.B. King’s Blues Club in the blues legend’s home state. However, the plan met a fatal flaw after developers discovered what a Watkins’ attorney called a “structural flaw” that “resulted in increased costs of over $1.5 million and months of delay,” according to a 2013 Jackson Free Press article.
Watkins has long maintained that his company poured nearly $5 million into infrastructure repairs, including buying pricey red bricks he said were required due to the district’s historic designation as well as repairs to sidewalks, sewer and water systems under the street. Watkins has also argued that the onset of the Great Recession made it difficult to obtain credit and other investments.
After four years, the city’s redevelopment agency terminated Watkins’ contract in 2013; in turn, Watkins filed liens on the properties hoping to recoup the cash he says he sunk into the project. Against the backdrop of the court case, the next six years were marked by the death of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, a power struggle between his appointees of the redevelopment agency and an old guard, the release of a damning federal report requiring the city to repay grant funds, yet another changeover in the city’s mayor’s chair and more legal troubles for Watkins unrelated to Farish Street.
Through court filings, Watkins argued that the termination of his 45-year lease to develop and manage Farish street cost Jackson some $23 million in lost cash assets, tax credits and rebates, loans and his personal investments. Our analysis confirmed $15 million in lost assets.
The city’s redevelopment agency argued that Watkins failed to meet deadlines and other terms of the lease.
Jennifer Johnson, an attorney and former chair of redevelopment agency who was re-appointed to the board in September 2019, said the Watkins lawsuit should have concluded sooner. Johnson believes the protracted case potentially scared off other developers that could have carried the project across the finish line.
“I’ve only been (back) on the board since October, but what I think should be next is the process of getting to an understanding, where we are with the HUD repayment, if that’s been done,” said Johnson.
“Having conversations with the Farish Street community, talking with potential business owners, developers, and trying to start that process of figuring out how the development will go now that we’re in the 2020s and beyond. We’re a long way from what was originally proposed 20 years ago. But the area still has potential, still is ripe for development.”
Taking advantage of lessons learned
In the past two years, a pair of important developments represent new potential for Farish Street: The conclusion of the David Watkins lawsuit, when the state Supreme Court ultimately sided with the city of Jackson to lift the property liens in October of this year, but resulted in at least $312,600 in city legal fees, according to affidavits filed during one phase of the case, records show.
The other is Jackson’s repayment of a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money was not lost to tax-payers per se, but more of a lost opportunity for an infusion of cash into other developments. The repayment came out of three years worth of federal grants otherwise allotted to the city, similar to a debt collector garnishing wages for unpaid bills.
The money originally went toward acquiring the two-block entertainment district properties, documents show. The city chipped in another $2.5 million for streetscape renewal, according to media reports at the time.
In 2014, HUD issued a report documenting the city’s failure to make progress on Farish Street redevelopment and implicated a former developer later tapped as the city’s economic development director for the “appearance of conflicts of interest”. According to HUD documents, the city did not properly document the project’s income and progress, or processes and oversight between the redevelopment agency and developers.
The city’s redevelopment agency said, in response to a public records request from WLBT and Mississippi Today, that supporting documentation detailing procedures and finances, were not available.
The city of Jackson originally justified the purchase of properties based on their future use, such as the economic development inherent in creating jobs in the low-income neighborhood, but could not prove that they actually did so. HUD criticized the impasse, writing in the 2014 report: “It has been more than 16 years since the City began acquiring the above listed property (the 17 parcels) and it remains unclear whether or not the activity will ever meet a national objective,” according to 2014 letter to the city of Jackson.
In addition to not meeting program requirements with the funds, the HUD sanction also pointed to the extended liens as a red-flag when they involved a lock out of public grant-funded property and economic development.
Jackson eventually repaid the HUD funds but remains under a monitoring agreement. Records Mississippi Today and WLBT obtained show that once Jackson implements safeguards to prevent similar mishandling of federal funds, the sanctions will lift. HUD could not provide a date when Jackson would be relieved from monitoring.
Melvin Priester Jr., a Jackson native and city council member, said the end of the lawsuit is a chance to reboot and use existing infrastructure in creative ways.
“We can take advantage of some lessons that we have had to learn the hard way over the last 20 some-odd years. I think this is the golden age of the one-off event, the pop-up-festival, the event that doesn’t require a million dollars in start-up to have a chance.”
He points to the city council’s recent appointment of a Farish Street business owner, John Tierre Miller, who opened Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues in 2015, to the city’s convention and visitors’ board as an example of the city recognizing the need for more community input on economic development plans.
“Instead of trying to tell y’all on Farish Street what to do, let’s take one of your business people and put you on a (city) board where you’re going to be driving the money and the narrative and the planning for visitor and convention type activities and tourism in the City of Jackson,” Priester said.
As she strolls through her community on a recent fall day, Davis remembers growing up across from Farish Street’s Alamo Theatre, where her parents worked. She points to the old ice cream shop, still craves Peaches’ suppers and thinks small businesses remaining, like E & M Florists and even new shops toward the end of the street, are a sign of Farish’s fortitude. During an interview, three neighbors stop her just to say hi or ask a favor she’s happy to grant.
But Farish Street has always been resilient, she said.
“It’s (just) a shell and it’s heartbreaking because this has set here too long. It disgusts me because I see that (the city) can come up with money for every neighborhood around us but you can’t come with any for us. What happened to Farish Street?,” Davis asks. “Shouldn’t we have the same thing? We pay taxes like everybody else, so shouldn’t we have some of that?”
Kumar, the city’s former planning director, says the city never should have gotten in the business of manufacturing entertainment districts.
“It’s not like entertainment districts have been problematic just in the last five years. We have known this for a good 15 to 20 years – that if public money gets involved, you do need to have some level of public purpose behind it. I would argue that an entertainment district isn’t one,” he said.
Davis said she looks forward to working with Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s administration now that the liens have been removed the properties.
Lumumba, who was elected mayor in 2017, echoes the sentiments of Davis and Kumar about the need for Farish Street to grow organically rather than superimposing the vision of one developer or government official.
Nonetheless, Lumumba said he wants to manage expectations of Jacksonians longing for a rebirth. Despite having a clean slate, a new Farish Street will not spring up overnight, he warned. In the meantime, he said his administration has been in talks with design and planning experts around the country.
“What we find is that Jackson isn’t the only city that has had a project that just can’t seem to take flight. Farish Street is that project for us. If we look historically and over the long haul of the city’s history, at one point the King Edward was that that type of project,” Lumumba said of the historic building’s renovation into a Hilton Garden Inn and residential apartments.
“Farish Street,” Lumumba said, “is a survival story.”
C.J. LeMaster, WLBT chief investigative reporter, contributed reporting to this story.