Arena in New Hands


Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. asked the Jackson City Council to consider a disparity study on minority-business inclusion in city contracts this week.

City officials have three proposals from private firms offering to study the feasibility of a sports and entertainment arena in downtown Jackson. That puts the city-led arena effort at nearly the same place as the stalled privately led effort last December.

The way forward is uncertain, however. To narrow down the field, Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. plans to appoint a selection committee composed of city and local business representatives.

Johnson's spokesman, Chris Mims, said that once the selection committee has picked one of the three proposals, the city will present a contract to the Jackson City Council for approval.

Jackson will depend on private funding sources to pay the study's costs, Mims said. That means relying on donors who pledged a total of $65,915 to a study when the effort was under the auspices of a private steering committee.

"We're going to move forward, but we also expect those individuals who made (previous) commitments to fund the study to fulfill those commitments," Mims said.

"We can choose somebody, but if the private funding is not there, it's not going to go forward."

Mims said that he could not offer a timetable for when the city would ask council to approve a contract for the study.

"I can tell you that we're not sitting on our hands," Mims said. "We're about to move through this process, and the city's going to do its part."

The private fundraising effort had a goal of $80,000 when it lost steam last year. That amount would have covered the cost of the first phase of a two-part feasibility study by Populous Sports, a leading design firm specializing in both studies and the actual design work for stadiums.

After the Downtown Jackson Arena Steering Committee relinquished control of the project to the city, Johnson portrayed the move as an intervention to save the arena effort.

"The message that I got was that it would probably fall off the table because there was no longer any leadership
there," Johnson told the Jackson Free Press in January.

Former Jackson Chamber of Commerce Chairman and steering committee member Jonathan Lee characterized it differently, saying that that steering committee members welcomed the city's offer "to take a more active role in the process" because the project would ultimately require government support anyway.

The city's request for proposals for an arena study, which it sent earlier this year, is a slightly revised version of the one sent by Downtown Jackson Partners, the Jackson Chamber and regional development agencies March 15, 2009.

In both cases, documents refer to the project as a "sports arena."

In 2009, local backers of an arena may have believed that the facility should support a sports team, but by the launch of a fundraising effort in November 2010, the dominant vision of the project had shifted from a sports-oriented facility to a multi-purpose venue for concerts and other entertainment.

"It seems, in my opinion, sports teams like hockey and arena football—those types of events aren't necessarily moneymaking events for the venue," Lee said in November.

"I've never gotten the impression that they worked."

Nevertheless, the city's request also calls the facility a "sports arena." The city made other significant changes, though, restricting the proposed arena's location to the city, its central business district and "the generally accepted Downtown Area as a whole."

The previous request for proposals left the location open to the city and "the surrounding metropolitan area."

Most notably, perhaps, the city's request for proposals stipulates a few additional parts of an arena study, including a list of "potential funding sources" and a "comprehensive pro forma that adequately addresses future revenues and expenses of operation." With these changes, the city hopes to get a more comprehensive look at an arena's feasibility, Mims said.

"I think that initially it was going to be a two-phase project, to study it from a marketability (standpoint) and then move toward these other issues," Mims said.

"The city's intention is to get all these questions answered (up front)."


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