City of Jackson seeking up to $5.5 million in bonds for planetarium, arts center

Okolo Rashid is Co-Founder, President and Director of the Islamic Thought Institute at the...
Okolo Rashid is Co-Founder, President and Director of the Islamic Thought Institute at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson. Source: WLBT
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 3:11 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - African manuscripts that have stood the test of time for centuries are facing a new threat: high temperatures brought about by a broken HVAC system at the Arts Center of Mississippi.

The Pascagoula Street center has been nearly non-operational for more than a month after the HVAC there suddenly quit operating.

While most employees can work out of their homes, some nearly 700-year-old manuscripts now on display at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures are not that fortunate.

And due to the extreme heat there, museum officials are worried that the artifacts could be damaged as a result.

However, help could be on the way in the form of a multi-million-dollar loan being considered by the Jackson City Council.

Tuesday, the council approved a resolution to issue up to $5.5 million in general obligation bonds from the Mississippi Development Bank to renovate the Russell C. Davis Planetarium and to repair the HVAC unit at the arts center.

Okolo Rashid, executive director of the museum, was one of several arts leaders who attended Tuesday’s meeting to urge the council to not only fix the building’s air conditioning but to make additional improvements to the facility.

“What I was there to talk about and really impress upon the city council and the city of Jackson is the importance of getting the Arts Center up and going. Even though we have other organizations there and it’s impacting them, it’s impacting the museum more because we have to have a certain temperature to preserve our artifacts,” she said.

Rashid is particularly concerned about some African manuscripts on loan from the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu. The documents are part of the museum’s Legacy of Timbuktu exhibit.

“These are manuscripts that date back to the 1400s that really establish the great scholarship, the great wealth, and the empire-building of West Africa,” she said. “Nobody has these except the Library of Congress.”

Right now, the museum is using fans and other items to keep the artifacts as cool as possible.

The arts center is located on Pascagoula Street between the planetarium and Thalia Mara Hall. The roughly 43-year-old building is home to the Museum of Muslim Cultures, Ballet Mississippi, Mississippi Opera, VSA Arts, and other groups.

Many offices there are temporarily closed as a result of the lack of air conditioning. “It’s very hot over there,” said Deputy Director of Human and Cultural Services David Lewis. “It has no air conditioning and it’s a Mississippi summer. Tenants are able to access the building to get to their offices. But the HVAC and AC are down for now.”

Lewis was unsure when the air conditioner would be repaired. He said that depends on how quickly a new HVAC unit can be purchased. “There’s a major backlog on HVACs,” he said. “We have reached out to several companies and are waiting to hear back from them. (Tuesday’s) action from the council will help us move more quickly.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved a resolution of intent to borrow the loan. The vote is basically a formality and is required before the council issues the actual order to take out the money.

The council will do that once an official dollar amount is presented by the administration. Lewis hopes to present that figure to the council sometime in September. He wasn’t sure how long it would take for the loan application to be processed and approved.

Funds from the loan also will be used to begin work on a $12 million project designed to rehab the Davis Planetarium.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced the plans last year. Work includes redoing the third-floor exhibit space, as well as installing new seating and new lighting, and re-working the restroom facilities, Lewis said.

New exhibits are also on tap to replace the ones that were last updated during the days of the space shuttle.

Meanwhile, the second floor will be gutted and redesigned for use as an adaptive learning space, while a new atrium will be built on the first floor to better connect the planetarium with the Mississippi Arts Center.

Including the $5.5 million in loans, the city has secured about half of the $14 million the city hoped to raise for the work.

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