3 On Your Side Investigates: The Future of Farish Street

Updated: Dec. 12, 2019 at 6:34 AM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Over nearly four decades, developers, elected officials and community members have tried -- and failed -- to fully revive a dying street in Jackson, costing Mississippi taxpayers nearly $11 million, according to a WLBT-Mississippi Today joint investigation.

Dorothy Davis, perhaps the neighborhood’s most vocal supporter, remembers the bustling street as a child growing up on nearby Bloom Street.

3 On Your Side Investigates: The Future of Farish Street
3 On Your Side Investigates: The Future of Farish Street(Source: Smith Robertson Musem)

The Farish Street she describes -- theaters, furniture stores, banks and a community hospital -- seems a world away from what exists there now: mostly shuttered properties, crumbling storefronts and empty plots.

“This used to be an ice cream parlor, the best ice cream in town,” she said, pointing toward Collins Funeral Home.

On just about every corner, a different memory from Dorothy Davis’ life comes alive.

“We bought our first furniture there,” Davis said, motioning toward a stretch of abandoned buildings.

The furniture, she said, she and her husband purchased after getting married in 1977.

“We could shop, eat, everything,” Davis said. “Farish Street was the artery of Jackson. There were stores on Capitol Street we couldn’t go in.”

The walk down Farish Street proved poignant and painful that day, with Davis echoing what others have said: those nine blocks represented an amazingly progressive time for African-Americans in spite of the Jim Crow laws that led to the community’s creation.

Her biggest fear these days is that it’ll all be forgotten.

“People don’t look at it now. They look at it as, ‘oh it’s just people down there don’t care,’ but you’d be surprised how many people down here still care," Davis said. “And I’m talking about the people that never left. Although it shut -- Farish Street as a whole shut down -- people did not leave.”

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowered black Jacksonians to explore those shops and businesses that once shut them out, families eventually left.

Today, a fraction of Farish Street’s shops remain.

From 1980 to the late 90s, Jackson leaders commissioned several studies and plans that would have improved housing and infrastructure, revitalizing the historic district through a cohesive approach which embraced more businesses and economic development as well its landmark past.

Those efforts failed, year after year.

In one study from the early 90s, the author stressed that the plan wasn’t going to just collect dust, but it did.

The street's few success stories -- renovations to the Smith Robertson Museum and the Alamo Theatre -- took place thirteen years apart.

By 1997, the focus shifted to creating an entertainment district, and Jackson’s economic development arm, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, started acquiring two blocks of Farish Street for a future developer.

To entice them, the city spent more than a million in taxpayer dollars - plus a federal grant - for infrastructure improvements there, including cobblestone streets and sidewalks, updated lighting and improved water and sewer lines.

Around the same time those improvements began, the city of Jackson signed a deal with Performa Real Estate to create two blocks of bars, restaurants and nightlife at an estimated cost of $15 to $20 million.

Performa had already transformed Beale Street in Memphis.

Newspaper reports at the time point to a relationship doomed from the start.

“A Memphis developer with a polished sales pitch and a hit-or-miss record. A city government often at war with itself. A historic street known as much now for crime as its heritage,” wrote Clarion-Ledger reporter Chris Joyner in June 2008.

Performa CEO John Elkington told the newspaper at the time that the project was still very much alive.

The firm had already been on the job for six years with little progress.

Elkington blamed the delays on funding issues, too much oversight, construction issues and a liquor law restriction based on the entertainment district’s proximity to Mississippi College.

On top of that, political pressure from city leaders, most notably then-mayor Frank Melton, continued as Performa failed to perform.

“This guy’s been playing with the city for the last four or five years, and I’m done with it,” Melton said.

Despite Elkington’s encouraging remarks, Performa walks away from the project four months later, and Jackson developer David Watkins, fresh off his recent renovation of the King Edward and Standard Life buildings, acquires the lease.

Watkins quickly runs into delays, too; the project’s federal historic designation meant more red tape and costly construction purchases.

In addition, the firm discovered a flaw in one of the building’s foundations -- the one that would have housed a B.B. King blues club -- which added more than $1.5 million in unplanned expenses.

After five years with no new businesses opening there, JRA cancels the lease in 2013, and Watkins files liens against those properties to recoup the money he lost and prevent future development there.

Watkins later blamed JRA for the delays in court filings, saying the agency stonewalled him and he couldn’t get new lines of credit for unexpected construction issues because of the 2008 economic downturn.

Those filings show Watkins claimed $23 million in lost assets from the debacle; a Mississippi Today analysis verified that figure at $15 million.

It took a six-year legal battle and a state Supreme Court decision to decide that Watkins wasn’t entitled to any damages.

Meanwhile, those buildings sat vacant.

“It’s [just] a shell and it’s heartbreaking, because this has set here too long,” Davis said. “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, and that’s what bothers me most. What happened to Farish Street? Shouldn’t we have the same thing?

How much did these failed development deals cost?

3 On Your Side collaborated with Mississippi Today to answer that question, poring through city council and federal housing records as well as hundreds of newspaper articles and WLBT archives.

Our analysis found that city, state and federal agencies plus developers spent or committed around $51 million to revitalize properties on that street

More than $10 million of that came from Mississippi taxpayers, with most of that for the entertainment district.

“We needed to know whether we felt that JRA was still serving the interest of the city of Jackson as a body. Was it simply an equation of putting new people on there or was it the idea that we need a new structure?"

One year after Watkins’ lease was terminated, the U.S Dept. Of Housing and Urban Development determined the city didn’t meet national guidelines to get that federal funding.

As a result, the city had to pay $1.5 million back to HUD, money originally used to buy parcels on Farish Street for the failed entertainment district.

The HUD investigation revealed something else, too: a lack of oversight from the city, which was supposed to monitor JRA’s spending.

That fiasco served as one of many things Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba considered before appointing new members to the JRA board.

3 On Your Side Investigates: The Future of Farish Street
3 On Your Side Investigates: The Future of Farish Street

“There was a lot to consider with JRA. I’ll be honest with you. One, we needed to know whether we felt that JRA was still serving the interest of the city of Jackson as a body. Was it simply an equation of putting new people on there or was it the idea that we need a new structure, we need a new entity that may do it in-house?" Lumumba said.

Our investigation uncovered evidence that JRA also failed to follow state law with its own members.

Minutes from JRA meetings show that, when a board member’s term expired, they remained.

In some cases, this lasted for months.

JRA leadership even allowed those with expired terms to attend meetings and vote as if they were current members.

State law says expired members cannot serve any more than 90 days past their term limit...and if they do, their vote is invalid.

Our investigation revealed Kemba Ware-Taylor, whose term expired in August of 2018, not only continued to attend JRA meetings, but also voted and participated in those meetings for four months before the board took away those privileges in February of this year.

The board did not have a quorum for a meeting in January.

3 On Your Side started attending JRA meetings in May, and after videotaping a few of them, the JRA board decided in September to ban cameras or recording equipment from its meetings without prior authorization.

“I wasn’t aware of that. I can understand a concern about not videotaping things where were going to be discussing something that could become part of a business negotiation but I’m disappointed to learn that they have a rule like that,” Jackson City Councilman Melvin Priester said.

Despite multiple attempts, JRA Chairman John Dinkins declined an interview for this story.

Dinkins told a city spokesperson that he declined the interview because he wants to be better briefed about Farish Street first, even though he’s been a JRA board member for four years, and Farish Street comes up often in their meetings.

Newly-appointed JRA Commissioner Jennifer Johnson declined an on-camera interview, but offered her opinion on what the future holds for the historic district.

“While I am not the current chairman, I would hope and expect [JRA’s] actions will include input from residents and business owners/leaders of the Farish Street community,” Johnson said. “These individuals and institutions are fully invested in the district, and any development plan should include them.”

Johnson said she hopes to have discussions with local business leaders and other entities associated with the district.

“It would be great to see a financially sound development that strikes the right balance between honoring the thriving business center that Farish Street was decades ago, and exploring how its history can serve as a catalyst for growth in a modern downtown Jackson and beyond," Johnson said.

Johnson also mentioned the need for greater transparency and honesty;

Meanwhile, Davis just tries to attend as many meetings as she can, both with the city and her own group, the Farish Street Communities of Shalom.

At a meeting last month, those voices held a familiar theme: community over commercialism, one property at a time.

“What gives me hope -- and again, I am really very hopeful -- is that we finally have an opportunity for a reboot and we can take advantage of some lessons that we have had to learn the hard way over the last 20-some-odd years," Priester said. "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.”

Davis said they’re seeing progress there, too, even if others can’t, because they don’t come there to see it for themselves.

“I think we are actually beginning to move forward and we’re just going to keep praying and keep walking and keep -- you know, our forefathers had to do it. They didn’t get things just sitting down, being still, and so we have to do it now. And that’s what we will do," Davis said.

Neither David Watkins nor his attorney Robert Gibbs responded to multiple requests for an interview for this story.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article stated JRA had to pay $1.5 million back to HUD, not the city.

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