Sunday, June 7, 2009

Interview with Harvey Johnson (Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi)

I seemed to happier with this piece than most of our readers. I think this was because it was originally planned as one thing, but became another. There really is no one to blame for that; it just happened. I'd been doing a series of interviews on Jackson's Urban Redevelopment. I thought a nifty third part would be talking to the only mayor in history who'd taken an active role in trying to clean up the city. That was the plan. However, we also decided to use the interview to go along with the first issue of a new graphical look, and it was the beginnings of election season. As such, the series was faded into the background and it looked like more of a stand-alone interview. Because of that, I was accused of tossing softball questions at the mayor, which I can't deny. Worse yet, I was a Harvey Johnson supporter, which I won't deny. I wish the interview had come out more like I had originally planned, but I've always been personally pleased with it.

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson has, in two terms, become one of the most visible mayors in the history of the city. He has elected to take an active role in public education and economic development of the city, pushing to make Jackson the Best of the New South – a city of excellence. Born in Vicksburg, Johnson received his first degree in political science from Tennessee State University and followed that up with a Masters’ Degree in political science from the University of Cincinnati. He has studied toward a doctorate in public administration at University of Southern California’s Washington Public Affairs Center in Washington, DC.
Johnson spent 25 years in the field of planning and community development, served as an assistant professor of political science at Jackson State University, and was a member of the Mississippi State Tax Commission and the Mississippi Gaming Commission. He also served his country as a Captain in the United States Air Force.

In 1997, Johnson was elected the first African-American mayor in Jackson history, a fact that made national headlines. He serves on the Democratic National Committee, the United States Conference of Mayors Homeland Security Task Force, the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, and is president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Municipal League, the Metro Jackson Chamber of Commerce, and National Urban Fellows, Inc. He has served on numerous other boards, including the American Red Cross of Central Mississippi, Union Planters, and Smith-Robertson Museum. Johnson is a charter member of 100 Black Men of Jackson. He is married to Kathy Ezell Johnson and they have two adult children, Sharla and Harvey III.

We met with Mayor Johnson on December 30, in the busy time between Christmas and New Year’s.

Planet Weekly: The next term of office for Jackson’s mayor is likely to be an important one, with many ribbons to cut on several new projects. Does this affect your continued desire to be the mayor?

Mayor Harvey Johnson: I would like to see a number of projects that have been born, if you will, during our second term come to fruition, but that’s not the only driving force. This is a very rewarding job. I think there are things that still need to be done in the city of Jackson, besides just the physical projects that are going to take place over the next four years, and I’m prepared to do those things. There is a lot of momentum and I’d like to be a part of continuing that momentum.

PW: What sorts of things need to be done?

HJ: I think public education is a very important part of what we have to look forward to. Trying not only to improve the physical facilities we have, but improving other aspects of public education. It needs more supporters in our city. We need to face that challenge and get more people to rally around public education in our community.

PW: How?

HJ: If I had a road map, it’d be done by now. The first thing you do is to try to raise everyone’s awareness that there is a need. Public education impacts so many things. It impacts the ability to attract business and industry to your city, because they want a trained or trainable workforce. It impacts crime, especially if crime is committed by youth. It impacts the stability of the community. Educating young people who will not only go to college and do great things, but will do these great things when they come back home. It is a key to a lot of issues we need to deal with.

PW: What is your role in bringing this awareness to the city?

HJ: The mayor has a bully pulpit. My role is to use that bully pulpit to make people aware of the need to support public education, and how important it is to the future of our city. I have been to every public school in the city of Jackson, some of them two or three times. I’m committed to try to do what I can to make sure people are aware of the need.

PW: How should they support public education, financially?

HJ: Financially is one way. Obviously at some point in time, a bond issue is going to have to be put on the ballot to expand or replace some facilities. There are some other ways to support it. The Adopt-a-School program is a great effort on the part of businesses to lend support. Mentoring is another very important aspect. I think after-school programs are important. A lot of the students in the school system can use that time for recreation, but also for tutoring and studying and basically for staying out of trouble. A better rubric for this whole discussion is Youth Development, not just public education.

PW: What else needs to be done?

HJ: The creation of jobs and the stabilization of our tax base is a critical issue, one that people like to simplify. ‘Just get another Big Box and put it here and you’ll have more sales tax,’ but it’s a larger issue than that. It was just announced that we have a major subdivision being planned for South Jackson. This is an important aspect, not only for stabilizing our tax base, but also creating households and putting them close to the MetroCenter, which has enjoyed some pretty hard times of late.

PW: Residential development does appear to be lagging behind commercial development in Jackson. What should we do to get people to put homes here?

HJ: We have to encourage developers and educate them on what’s happening in our city. We’re doing that. The market that we’re missing is the middle market, and that’s what’s so exciting about the planned subdivision in South Jackson – these are $100,000-$150,000 homes. We aren’t lacking development in the upper scale and we aren’t lacking for affordable homes. But that middle market, where you want a $150,000 house, you have to go outside of the city. That’s what we have to focus on. We reach out to the developers and see how we can incentivize a project. It could be infrastructure – roads, water, and sewers. We’ve been entertaining a lot of proposals on how we can facilitate development with these kinds of homes.

PW: You see this as something that will increase during the next term?

HJ: Oh yes, no question. This is something we’re starting to see the fruits of. There’s been a lot of emphasis on downtown, but we’re also planning on how we can provide incentives to encourage these housing developers to move into our city and do the kinds of things that have been proposed in South Jackson.

PW: The MetroCenter area appears to be the next sort of project. There is already some activity happening there. Is this new subdivision related to it?

HJ: It’s related. It places a significant number of households 10-15 minutes away and that’s what retailers are looking for. In an area of the city where the perception is that people are moving away, it’s good to see new development come, because it means that people are moving there.

PW: Don’t the numbers back up the fact that people are moving away from Jackson?

HJ: The census numbers do indicate a loss of population, but if you look at our building permits, it indicates that new building is very strong here. Over a five-year period, we’ve averaged over $100 million in building permits. I meant the perception of moving away specifically from the West Jackson/MetroCenter area. People are shifting away, but the shift is taking them to South Jackson, the fastest growing area in the city. But obviously there has been a decrease in population from census to census. People are moving into our city from Madison and Rankin [Counties] and surrounding areas, but it’ll take a process to reverse the trend. It didn’t just start in 2000. Our highest population total was in 1970 and it’s been downward since then. That’s common to a lot of central cities throughout the country, so we’re not unique in that regard.

PW: Even so, the suburbs are all growing.

HJ: Yes, yes. But we still represent the trunk of the tree. Someone was at the [City] Council meeting the other day talking about deposits in the area. There may be $6 billion in deposits in the metro area, but $4 billion of that is in the city of Jackson. What impressed me was the scale, that there is still a considerable amount of economic activity in Jackson.

PW: Regardless of anything else, to some Jackson’s biggest problem is crime.

HJ: What the city government focuses on – whether it’s me or the chief – has to be on apprehending those people who commit the crimes in such a way that they receive their just due, and preventing crime to the extend that we can within the system. That’s why we are concerned about after-school programs. We operate nine centers in the city and try to give children something to do. We have a lot of programs that ultimately, we hope, will lead to the prevention of crime. I personally go into those schools and give anti-gun violence messages to those students. I think that crime is a problem throughout the country. I’ve said all along that what we need to be concerned about is making people feel safer and that’s the difficult part. We’re doing that by getting more police officers on the street. When I came into office, we had 350-370 officers and now we have 500, and that’s on top of losing 250 to attrition over those several years. I’ve increased the police budget by 30 percent. We’ve come up with a plan to map out what we can do to reduce crime. We have technology – computers in the police cars, video cameras, and Comstat, a computerized crime tracking mechanism that lets up better deploy our officers. The numbers indicate that crime is down. People sort of pooh-pooh the numbers. If you say that crime is down and your next door neighbor is robbed, you’re not going to believe it. But the fact is that there is a significant drop in crime in Jackson. One indicator is auto thefts. Three years ago we were number six of the top 100 metro areas in auto thefts. The latest report said we were number 74. That’s not getting any play in the papers. When we improve – probably the most significant improvement in the country on just that one indicator – nothing is said about it. It’s very frustrating to get that kind of information out.

PW: There are many who think the biggest crime problem is a backlog in the judicial system.

HJ: We have met with judges, prosecutors, and people from the sheriff’s office to try to get that system improved, and I think it is improving. I think we can use better technology as far as sharing data, and we’re slowly moving into that kind of system. We probably need to move a little faster. I think there’s a much better working relationship between these different tentacles of the criminal justice system. There’s a coordinating committee that we’re pushing for to try to make sure we have ample communication between all the parties in that system. Very early on this year, we looked at our bail system, which was allowing clerks to make decisions about certain offenses without the judges having a say-so in it. We came up with a new system for bailing people out for certain violent crimes. A judge now has to look at that case so you don’t have a sort of rubber stamp.

PW: Which led to some very bad press this year.

HJ: Exactly. We’re improving on that system. Certainly more can be made, but we’re in a better position now to make those improvements because of the level of communication between all parties than we were a year ago.

PW: Development in the city is something you will justly get credit for. There appears to be a real push to continue development and redevelopment. Does the city have room for more?

HJ: When I came into office, I said one of the things I wanted to do was to put Jackson into development mode. Is there room for more development? Yes. We have a fresh plan for downtown economic development strategies. We have a comprehensive plan adopted this year by the city council, an overall master plan for the city. We’ve taken small plans, like the entertainment district, Union Station, the Convention Center, and West Jackson housing, but now we’re in a mode to look at larger plans and how it all pieces together. We’re ready to move ahead and that’s exciting to me. We do need to make sure that deals are pushed by this office. Developers, citizens, and businesspeople need to know that we’re serious about the future of this city and our future hinges on our ability to develop and redevelop.

PW: What sort of identity should the Farish Street entertainment district take?

HJ: My goal with Farish Street is to capture the hope and promise it had 50 or 60 years ago, because it was a self-contained community for African-Americans. It allowed business to be transacted, it allowed entertainment, eating out, going to church; it allowed for all those things. My vision is to try to recapture that and use the entertainment district to anchor that. Another anchor is housing. Certainly another anchor is the religious institutions there. The oldest African-American church in the city is located there. We have a challenge to maintain the district. With the state of the housing, it has been neglected. We have a program we’re putting together to stabilize housing there.

PW: If any project has your name on it, figuratively speaking, it is the convention center. What do you think it will actually do for the city?

HJ: It’s going to create jobs. It’s going to create a venue where people will come to our city who perhaps wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come. But perhaps what it’s going to do is to indicate to the city, the metro area, and perhaps the whole state as to what can be done; what’s possible in the capital city. There are people who think that nothing can happen in the capital city. But with a convention center, with people coming from all over the state, the region, and the nation to this state-of-the-art meeting facility that’s right smack dab in the middle of Jackson, I think this will cause people eventually to stick out their chests a little further. This is something that the people of Mississippi can feel proud about.

PW: Right before election time, we received word about the businesses coming to Farish Street and about agreements being signed regarding the King Edward. Was this fortuitous or was there some planning involved?

HJ: Timing is an important aspect of any endeavor and we have been blessed with good timing, and some of the things that have been planned are coming into fruition. Of course, this was on the drawing board a long time. Did I push to make sure that we could point to that as an accomplishment? I certainly wanted it to happen not two weeks after November 2. If it happened two months before, two weeks, or two days, it didn’t matter to me. But it was important to me that we had some indication that things were moving forward in the city. Again, this comes back from my background as a planner, to say to folks, ‘the plan is fine, but when are we going to get it done?’ That’s what I’m saying to the people involved with Farish Street, the Telcomm Center, the Convention Center people, and it’s what we said about Union Station: ‘Fine, we have the plan, let’s get it done.’ So yes, I was pushing that development on Farish Street as hard as I could to make sure it got done. I’m glad it got done prior to the election, when it happened. Had I not pushed, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten done. I don’t know, but I’m just pleased it turned out the way it did.

PW: Has any sort of management group for the King Edward been selected?

HJ: Not a management group, but the developer has been selected. That will be left up to Historic Restorations. You’re supposing it would be a hotel?

PW: Actually, I’m of the opinion that it will be a mixed-use facility, which I think is a good idea.

HJ: I don’t think it will be a hotel, but I think that HRI will be responsible for it. It’ll be their baby, so whatever other groups or resources they need, they’ll have to come up with.

PW: Certain businesses are rumored to be ready to go in, even though there is no one to run it yet, no one to sign any sort of contracts to bring people in.

HJ: I’ve heard that as well, that businesses are looking to locate there. I’m not sure that the point where we are in this speculation process, whether it’s absolutely necessary to have a management group. What needs to happen first is that kind of interest being displayed, so the developers will feel comfortable spending the money they’re going to have to spend and the city will feel comfortable spending the money that it’s going to have to spend, knowing there is interest out there. I think that kind of speculation is healthy, because we’ve gone from ‘let’s tear it down’ and ‘when are you going to do something about it’ to ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to have this business here.’

PW: When the King Edward agreement was signed, was it for the entire development or only for the early phases?

HJ: Right now we’re looking at the early phase – the environmental abatement and some limited demolition. With the holidays, I’m really not to sure where we are with that final document that will carry it all the way through to completion, but that will be the next document. When I talked to people a few weeks ago, they said that it would be finished by the end of the year. I don’t know where it is, but it could slip to early January.

PW: What sort of future do you see for the city of Jackson?

HJ: The future looks very good. I think we’re at a point in our history we haven’t been before. We have an infusion of private investment. We’ve had it before, but we haven’t had it in recent years at the level we have now. I think that the citizens of our city believe that we can work together to make our city better. To me, those things indicate that the future is very bright, because people have to believe that the future is bright. Part of my job is to convince people of that, to be a cheerleader and an ambassador and whatever I can be to convince people that we’re moving ahead in the city, that we’re becoming the Best of the New South, and we need to keep working. We have to work at it every day. If we can convince people that we are striving for excellence, and that’s what we’re trying to do, reaching our potential, we’re in good shape and I think that people are seeing that we can reach that goal.

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