By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – West Jackson Street homeowner Sean Shumpert no longer fears his young children playing in the front yard.
He and his wife Latoya no longer worry about violence, robberies, drugs and questionable characters across the street just five houses away at an eight-unit apartment complex.
The final residents in the apartment complex at 1103 West Jackson St. moved out a year ago this month after the city of Tupelo spent $260,817 of taxpayer money to buy the property, ending many neighborhood residents’ constant worry for their safety.
“I’m glad they shut it down,” said Shumpert, 44. “Every weekend something happened – drug arrests, fighting, gunshots.”
The city saw elimination of that activity as crucial to its attempt to redevelop the West Jackson Street neighborhood so that more middle-class families would want to live there.
Since he bought his house in 2002, Shumpert had seen a steady decline in the neighborhood environment.
He saw prostitutes walking the street near his house. He couldn’t even hold a garage sale without trouble from the apartment complex. A fight broke out one Friday night and ended up in Shumpert’s front yard, damaging items he’d hoped to sell the next morning.
Welcome silence from the vacant apartments at the Clayton Avenue and West Jackson Street intersection has lowered anxiety for nearby residents, but crime along nearby areas still requires vigilance.
Tupelo police records show 33 crime reports at the apartment complex from 2007 to 2012. However, seedy activity on Chapman Drive, one street over from West Jackson Street residents, continues safety concerns.
The short stretch along Chapman Drive has earned a notorious reputation in recent years. A double murder, domestic violence, malicious mischief, stalking, grand larceny, identity theft, and public drunk to name a few – Chapman Drive has a rap sheet that would make a gangster proud.
Pervasive crime and blighted housing, coupled with the city’s desire to attract and retain middle-class residents and the fact West Jackson Street is a major corridor from the local airport to downtown, make this area a poster child for neighborhood redevelopment.
City leaders have known for decades the threats to the city’s future viability in and near older neighborhoods not maintained by property owners. Less desirable, affordable housing for middle-income residents and families can make options outside Tupelo’s city limits more attractive.
Having fewer middle-income families impacts demographics within Tupelo’s public school system, historically one of the best in the state. Declining properties translates into less property tax revenue available for city services that create quality of life amenities many residents expect and that can influence where homebuyers decide to move.
Generally, property owners occupying a house they own take better care than renters, who often care about where they live but aren’t as invested long term.
An analysis of 1990, 2000 and 2010 Census data for Tupelo and Lee County shows a slight increase in the ratio of owner-occupied housing and rental units. In Tupelo, 2010 data shows the city’s rental housing at 40.2 percent, up from 37.8 percent a decade earlier. Rentals as a percentage of overall housing units in Lee County not including Tupelo was 27.2 percent in 2010, a 3.6 percentage point increase from 20 years prior.
After extended discussion and debate in the wake of 2010 Census data that showed stalled growth in the city’s population and accelerated population increases in north Lee County, the Tupelo City Council in September 2012 budgeted $2.9 million for a three-year redevelopment project in areas along West Jackson Street. Initial details for the plan involve placing utilities underground, adding sidewalks and turning part of West Jackson into a boulevard.
This public-private partnership also includes replacing blighted properties with attractive housing likely priced in the $90,000 to $120,000 range for young families and professionals.
City commitment to this project reflects a desire for strengthened residential areas within the Gravlee neighborhood, which includes West Jackson Street, Chapman Drive, Shirley Avenue, Magnolia Drive and Leake Street. It also aims to protect vitality of the nearby Joyner neighborhood, an older, traditional neighborhood bordering West Jackson Street.
To date, $681,817 has been spent to acquire seven properties, including $335,000 for purchase and demolition of the Blair Street Apartments at 401 Clayton Ave., another blighted property with crime problems. The nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation, comprised of realtors, bankers and other business professionals, handles day-to-day project details on behalf of the city. NDC commissioned local architecture firm The McCarty Company to complete a master plan for the effort.
NDC members have remained quiet about the master plan and other project details. They have focused on private negotiations with owners of roughly 15 to 25 properties since November. NDC chairman Duke Loden said in October that the redevelopment’s master plan would likely be public after property acquisitions ended in December.
As January passed, NDC members still haven’t shared any new public updates. Tuesday, members of the nonprofit will meet in private with the City Council to provide a project update.
During a time of increased skepticism nationally related to using tax dollars projects for large, multiple-stage projects, some residents have concerns about the city’s involvement in the real estate business.
One such resident, Mayor Jason Shelton, elected seven months ago, has said he generally opposes using tax money for real estate projects. However, he makes an exception with the West Jackson Street project, explaining combined factors of public safety, visibility and home- ownership potential elevates city concern for the area.
“Doing nothing isn’t an option,” he said last week. “It’s absolutely critical for this plan to succeed.”
George Taylor, a retired chief financial officer for a manufacturing company and longtime NDC member, sees revitalizing neighborhoods like West Jackson as critical to the city’s future.
“If you can accomplish this, you’re going to bring younger families into the city, into the schools, into all of the community activities and everything that goes along with living in the city,” said Taylor, a former city councilman whose son and grandchildren live in Tupelo. “It’s a healthy dose of longevity for the city.”
As city leaders plan to meet with NDC members, indications are that property acquisition efforts have hit a few snags and may lead to tweaks in the redevelopment effort.
“Depending on what we are able to acquire, the area will probably develop in phases rather than all at once,” said Tupelo city planner Pat Falkner.
Stacy McFerrin, a resident of the Joyner neighborhood who owns and manages real estate, has 10 properties along West Jackson Street, Shirley Avenue and Chapman Drive. NDC members identified each as a potential target for demolition of existing structures to be replaced with improved housing.
McFerrin said he told an NDC negotiator that he wanted $450,000 for the 10 properties and wouldn’t take any less than $45,000 each for any of them. He said NDC’s offer of roughly half that amount left him with no interest in negotiating anymore.
With 84 total properties in Tupelo, Amory, Baldwyn, and Verona, McFerrin said he relies on his rental property for income and future retirement.
McFerrin said his rental business also has improved the area.
“I’ve tried not to buy the crap houses,” he said Friday. “I’ve tried to find the houses that can be fixed and renovated.”
Properties McFerrin owns on West Jackson Street and Chapman Drive have assessed values for tax purposes ranging from $38,960 to $49,950. However, assessed property valuations often do not overlap with appraised values, commonly used when purchasing or selling property.
Appraisal prices, often considered a price for that particular time, include market factors, such as recent selling prices of comparable property, location and property depreciation or appreciation of property. Mississippi laws do not require public disclosure for amounts for which property sells.
Two of McFerrin’s properties account for 21.9 percent of all Tupelo Police Department reports on Chapman Drive from 2008-2013. Calls to McFerrin’s property include simple assault, domestic violence and other disturbances.
McFerrin acknowledges receiving phone calls from people concerned about activity at his properties and has advised calling the police if they suspect something unlawful. He accepts low-income housing vouchers from tenants to help subsidize monthly rent and says a person’s low income doesn’t mean he or she will cause problems.
“It’s not my job to pass judgment on anybody,” he said.
Hopes for success
Around 9 p.m. Friday, Randy Wade, 45, and Dee Dee Evans, 41, relaxed at their home at the corner of Clayton Avenue and Chapman Drive. Evans works two jobs and Wade operates a forklift, each with a weekly schedule consisting mostly of work and rest. On weekends, they like to unwind by listening to the blues and inviting over an occasional friend.
They admit to knowing none of their neighbors beyond a wave or morning hello. This weekend, a friend, Larry Chapman, 58, visited with them as he prepared a gigantic pot of his famous deer soup.
They’ve rented their house since about the time the nearby apartments at West Jackson and Clayton shut down. Wade said he has no complaints about the neighborhood and has never experienced anything there to cause concern.
“We just do our thing,” he said. “We don’t bother anybody and nobody bothers us.”
A couple of streets away on Magnolia Drive, Gravlee Neighborhood Association president Meredith Tollison said she has concerns about shrinking space where her young neighbors can push their babies in a stroller. She supports the city’s intentions to improve surrounding neighborhoods but acknowledges learning no related new details for months.
With a project that will take years to complete and uncertainty associated with steps such as property acquisition, Tollison said she accepts many factors will determine whether it succeeds. She said area residents must also take personal responsibility to take care of neighborhood properties.
“I wish it wasn’t necessary for the city to get into the real estate business,” she said, “but we’ve got to do something.”