Wednesday, May 5, 2010
"Y'all are just against economic development." That ribbing came from a Levee Board member who shall remain anonymous due to drinks on the table (a pretty good rule for journalists, by the way).
But even if he was kidding, which I assume he was, I've been thinking about his comment. First, of course, it's absurd. The Jackson Free Press was an early-adopter of sorts; we launched nearly eight years ago pushing from the get-go for development on Farish Street and "mixed use" in the shell of the King Edward and a vibrant downtown to attract the "creative class" (our first cover story in September 2002). Every year, our birthday issue focuses on the progress of Jackson's re-development; we've argued all along that Jackson's renaissance would require making it attractive to younger people.
Fast forward to the present: Young "urban warriors," as I call them, are everywhere. The creative class is alive and renting apartments in the King Edward and other renovated buildings. Even the rhetoric has shifted; nowadays, you're more likely to hear someone living or working in the suburbs get defensive toward proud city dwellers than the other way around, as it was when we launched. The Clarion-Ledger has even shut up about solving all the crime before development can work.
Jackson is damn cool in 2010, and it is undergoing the kind of revival that the JFP has pushed from the beginning. We consider ourselves hyperlocal, progressive entrepreneurs: We fight on behalf of locally owned business and their/our needs, and we want to see smart development re-create this city into a place where good jobs abound, the education system benefits from wealth created inside the city limits (and crime drops accordingly), and Jackson leads the nation in our ability to use diversity to promote smart growth, as creative-class visionary Richard Florida says that strong cities must do. (And as one of the few news operations in the country that has grown dramatically during the recession, we attribute much of our success directly to our diversity in staffing, advertising base and readership.)
But the JFP does not support development at any cost. We believe in a balanced approach to eco-devo. I started using that phrase a few years back because it was a quicker, hipper way of saying "economic development." Ironically, after a recent Google search, I learned that "eco-devo" already has a meaning: essentially the smart marriage of development with good environmental policy. Huh.
The JFP believes Jackson must fuse strong smart, well-planned development with the needs of our environment and our fragile ecosystem—thus, our criticism of the Two Lakes idea that has a few folks around town miffed at us. And, I suspect, it is those people who have tried to spread the nonsensical meme that the JFP is "against economic development."
Our editorial board has long been skeptical of the Two Lakes concept for two major reasons (beyond concern that the plan just may not work): First, no matter how you crack it, it would be an environmental nightmare, involving "moving" wetlands and endangering economies downstream (including the seafood industry). Then there is the second reason: Even if you do not care about the earth's ecosystem or endangered species, the very people our eco-devo efforts should attact do care about it. I don't mean the casinos that some people would love to see along the Pearl River; I'm talking about the educated, professional workers and entrepreneurs that Jackson must attract (and keep) to be a world-class city. Roulette tables just won't do that for us.
This isn't the 1960s, and we already have a reservoir with plenty of motorboat space. What Jackson needs in 2010 and beyond is forward-thinking development that embraces our resident wild river. Just as the Pinnacle Building downtown was an early "green" building, anything we do to mitigate flooding and create waterfront development must do the least harm possible to the environment. If you don't believe me, get yourself into a roomful of young professionals and creatives and see what they think about the idea of moving wetlands to create private waterfront property (and raise property taxes on the houses they might want to raise families in some day).
What I told the Levee Board member was that the JFP has never been a huge fan of levees, but that it was vital to "unlock" the two-sided dogfight from the limited options pushed for so long—huge Lakes plan or levees, nothing else—and get people to think creatively about solutions. It is time to stop the political game-playing about flood control—evident in several failed legislative attempts to take over the Levee Board this session—and start looking for less extreme compromises. Once you have a good, environmentally friendly idea, get your butts to Washington and sell it.
This is not a position we had to take. But it was an obvious one, and one that experts around the country share, including famed urban planner Andres Duany, who said that Two Lakes could not happen in his lifetime, due to its massive environmental problems attached to litigation costs. And that was before the election of our current "green" president and certainly before the oil spill in the Gulf.
As we wait to see the effects of this man-made disaster, it is obvious that a balance between making money and protecting the environment must be a front-of-mind consideration, not something that short-term thinkers gloss over. In 2008, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on the Two Lakes plan and the danger it posed to Louisana and its water-based industry, due to water pollution from upstream and disrupted water levels. The paper also reported that 5,500 acres of wetlands would be wiped out here along with 3,400 acres of forest and at least two threatened species. The plan also would move even more residents here into a dangerous floodplain. Painting a rosy picture to get past regulators is simply not smart development.
The oil industry—which happens to include some Two Lakes stalwarts—is not known for its respect for Mother Nature and her tendency to get even. It is up to the rest of us to keep some balance in this conversation going forward and to look for solutions that help Jackson grow and thrive while not destroying one of the key components of being an attractive city: a healthy local environment.
I bet Rush Limbaugh supports the Two Lakes plan.
Wouldn't surprise me if he did.
- golden eagle