Council Moves Toward Smith-Wills Demolition

By David Kenney
david@wlbt.net

The chances of bringing a new arena and a new football team to Jackson are becoming even greater.

Tuesday the City Council entered into an agreement to pursue the project, giving the developer the green light to get financing.

However, many factors could still bring the project to a standstill even before construction begins.

The vote was unanimous, the city of Jackson agreeing to begin land lease negotiations with developer Greg Disotell, who promises great things for the capital city. "It's not just an arena for a football team," Disotell told the council. "We can do concerts, trade shows -- numerous things in the Jackson area to bring an economic impact to the folks of Jackson."

With room for 12,000 people for concerts, 9,000 for sporting events, and 60 luxury suites, Disotell says the new arena would be state of the art.

The plan would still include demolishing Smith Wills stadium, and building the arena on that site, which the city still owns.

City council president Marshand Crisler says the facility has been a money pit since 2000. "Right now the Smith Wills stadium is costing the city, to the tune of $150,000 annually," Crisler towl WLBT. "We don't have revenue to keep spending in that manner."

The city promises to lease the land to the developers for fifty years at a $1 a year. Before that can happen, the city will have to sever ties with current tenants -- the owners of the Left Field Lounge restaurant and the Belhaven College baseball team.

Belhaven coach Hill Denson was present for Tuesday's vote. "I'm not trying to keep the project from happening," Denson said. "I'm trying to keep Smith Wills from being torn down."

Denson would prefer the arena be built behind the Smith Wills outfield, but developers say that land will be used for an access road to the Interstate 55 frontage road.

At the Left Field lounge, owners are upset they've been kept in the dark about the project, until now. "Our main concern is that they didn't consider our feelings in this situation and what's going to happen," said the establishment's Dan Keith. "The way they vote today -- it's simply giving him the right to lease the property if eveything turns out in October."

Mayor Frank Melton supports the arena proposal. "I am so pleased with the actions of the council today," he said. "Greg's going to do a wonderful job. I think this will be a very successful venture."

The city has to remove the current tenants, and the developer has to come up with the money by October 1. If approved, construction could be started the first of next year. The "Mississippi Headhunters," a team affiliated with the Arena Football 2 league, would begin play in the spring of 2008.

The city hopes to bring in over $350,000 in taxes from the arena. It could also take a percentage of ticket sales from the events held there.