Wednesday, March 12, 2008
A Civil Rights Museum commission appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour approved the location of a planned National Civil Rights Museum, March 11, with a 22-to-9 vote in favor of a controversial site near Tougaloo College. Commission members, including Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan, voted in favor of the Tougaloo location despite outcry from advocates of a downtown Jackson location.
Commission member and Jackson City Council President Leslie McLemore was one of the nine members who opposed the Tougaloo location. "Locating the museum in downtown Jackson is, by far, the best location. Considering the number of people who visit downtown Jackson and the number of fine institutions already here, we don't need to locate this museum in splendid isolation at Tougaloo," McLemore said.
Former Jackson Mayor Kane Ditto described the Civil Rights Movement as an urban movement, not a suburban movement, and believed the museum should rightfully be placed in the capital city. Ditto said he could not shake the feeling that the commission had intended for Tougaloo to be the location since the beginning.
"I'm concerned about the process. I think (commission members) should vote in a secret ballot because I fear there are folks in this room who feel like this is a train going down a track that they can do very little about," Ditto said. "I spoke to a commission member who wrote me an e-mail two months ago saying he entirely agreed with my position ... but when I talked to this person the other day he said, 'Well, this is a done deal."
Commission Co-chairman Reuben Anderson, a Tougaloo graduate, insisted the location was not already chiseled in stone. "There has been no train," he told Ditto. "There has been no effort to stuff anything down any commissioner's throat in this process."
LaPaglia & Associates President Pete LaPaglia said attendance rates at the Museum of Natural Science and the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum surpassed the downtown tourist attractions.
"You have two major museums out there on Lakeland Drive. The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science draws 122,000 people a year. The Agricultural Museum draws 100,000. The four museums downtown, Manship House, the Governor's Mansion, the art museum and Smith Robertson combined draw less than 73,000 people total," LaPaglia said, making no reference to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, also sited on Lakeland Drive, which took in only 35,000 visitors in 2007.
Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, which invested about $30,000 to promote a downtown site for the Civil Rights Museum, pointed out that LaPaglia made no note of the Old Capitol Museum, currently undergoing renovation and repair, which expects to draw 180,000 annual visitors. Allen added that LaPaglia's suggestion of the negative impact of urban blight upon downtown tourist sites seemingly had no effect upon the Jackson Zoological Park.
"The Jackson Zoo, which is in a blighted area, draws more people every year than any other place in the state except the Vicksburg National Military Park," Allen said.
LaPaglia insisted that the report is only a reflection of his company's commitment to the Civil Rights Museum. "I only have one client, and that is the National Civil Rights Museum of Mississippi. ... I can tell you that downtown is limiting as far as this museum goes," LaPaglia said.
Commission member and Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop criticized the city of Jackson for not chasing the project earlier. Allen and Downtown Jackson Partners campaigned for the project, investing time and money as soon as Allen joined the association as president. Before Allen's arrival, however, the city seemingly had no full-time employee lobbying for a city location.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton issued a March 10 statement advocating a downtown location, but Melton's personal input prior to his 2008 activism, according to many commission members, seemed to be limited to him removing a Lakeland Drive potential site from the commission's list of prospects hours before its first vote last year.
"This effort by the city should have been done sooner, when this process had begun," Bishop said. "This argument should have come forth sooner. Tougaloo College made its case and did everything it could to show it would be a willing partner in the success of this museum. ... I think the city of Jackson has the capability of becoming a world-class city, but a world-class city does not wait until the 11th hour or the 12th hour to make its case on something as significant as a museum."
Jackson Free Press columnist and hip-hop artist Kamikaze, who has lobbied heavily for the Jackson location, agreed with Bishop in faulting the city.
"When somebody has a relevant argument on the opposing side, I have no choice but to agree with it, and what (Bishop) said was probably the most on-point thing anybody has said on the other side of this issue," Kamikaze said after the vote. "Not only am I disappointed in the people who voted for this Tougaloo location, but I'm disappointed in the city leadership that allowed this to happen. We lost another potential boost to our economy.... f we do not do something with our city leadership to avert that from happening, it's going to happen again and again."