West Jackson plan hits possible roadblock

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By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A majority of the Tupelo City Council doesn’t want anybody else to decide how to spend city money on residential redevelopment projects, a stumbling block for one of Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s signature efforts.
City Council opposition to a key procedural part of the West Jackson Street area development project may threaten the initiative’s future.
During a City Council work session this week, council members Willie Jennings of Ward 7, Jim Newell of Ward 3, Mike Bryan of Ward 6 and Nettie Davis of Ward 4 said they couldn’t support having a citizen-led committee make financial decisions with taxpayer funds without directly approving them.
Mayor Jack Reed has said allowing a proposed citizen committee – members of the executive committee of the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation – make day-to-day decisions related to property acquisition and redevelopment is a key role in the effort succeeding.
“This is a way to get the City Council out of the real estate business,” Reed said Tuesday.
Reed and the council made redeveloping decaying city neighborhoods a key priority in recent years, an effort to help improve the city’s sluggish population growth by providing quality housing for middle-income residents.
Reed proposes the citizen committee of bankers and real estate developers take charge of day-to-day decisions of the project, which has a three-year budget of roughly $2.9 million. The City Council would approve the project’s budget each year, while the citizen committee would have authority to use about $1.4 million of the project’s funding.
The citizen committee would likely have a City Council member serve as a liaison and provide monthly updates, along with having city staff to assist.
Conceptually, Reed said the committee would work similar to the citizen committee associated with the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency, which led efforts to develop the Fairpark District downtown.
However, council members remain unconvinced a semi-autonomous citizen committee is right for the redevelopment of area along West Jackson Street and potentially future neighborhoods in other parts of the city.
“I can’t support us releasing money to the board,” Jennings said. “It’s not that I don’t trust them; it’s something that I think we need to be responsible for.”
Reached Wednesday, NDC committee chairman Duke Loden said he and other volunteer committee members wouldn’t support having to request council approval for each financial decision, which includes negotiating with owners of blighted property.
“If we’ve got to do every detail with the approval of the City Council, there’s no need for us,” Loden said. “If they don’t trust bankers and Realtors on the long-standing community improvement organization, I’m sorry.”
The nonprofit NDC has led previous efforts to redevelop property in the city, provided financial education literacy for potential homeowners and has worked with individuals to improve property.
Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said other council members’ opposition to the citizen committee taking an important role in the redevelopment effort could cloud the redevelopment project’s future.
“I think it jeopardizes the entire integrity of the program,” he said.
At this point, the next step for the redevelopment project is unclear. Council members will either discuss it at next week’s meeting or have another work session to devote more time to flesh out details.
robbie.ward@journlinc.com