By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Plans to use city tax dollars to buy 17-22 properties in the West Jackson Street area for redevelopment likely will continue through November and part of December, leading to a public unveiling of a master plan for the neighborhood development project.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation partnered with the city of Tupelo to lead the redevelopment project of a key part of the city that saw property values plummet in a relatively short period of time. It also saw increased clusters of crime and concerns about blight spreading to nearby neighborhoods.
NDC recently requested a second $250,000 allocation of city money set aside to buy property for the project, preparing for a quick round of real estate purchases of property mostly along the 1100 block of West Jackson Street.
Last week the NDC board approved a contract with Tupelo architecture firm The McCarty Company to complete a master plan for the redevelopment project by mid-November. The conceptual plan will not be made public until December, after property acquisitions are likely complete, said NDC chairman Duke Loden.
One of the key parts of the master plan for the project includes what will happen to the city-owned eight-unit apartment complex at Jackson Street and Clayton Avenue, a property rife with criminal activity until the city bought the property. Initially, NDC board members said they planned to demolish the structure but then backed off when the group of mostly bankers and some real estate agents and other business people identified costs associated with tearing the building down.
Recent conversations have included transforming the notorious apartments into condos. However, Loden said NDC will leave the decision up to McCarty architects.
“Our board has been split on what to do with that property,” Loden said.
Loden and other NDC board members have been hesitant to reveal too much information about the city-funded project until property sales are complete, worried that too much information could influence efforts to buy property identified with the project.
The Tupelo City Council allocated close to $3 million for the project during Jack Reed Jr.’s administration as an effort to reverse trends of blighted neighborhoods in the city. Project funding is split for costs associated with buying property and infrastructure and aesthetic improvements in the area. After some houses bought are demolished, the NDC intends to sell the property to private developers to build houses for young families and retirees valued in the $90,000 to $120,000 range, Loden said.
Houses sold recently among the real estate included in the redevelopment project were bought in the $17,000 to $20,000 range, Loden said, a steep decline from the roughly $70,000 houses in the area sold for as recently as a decade ago.
Reed said during his time as mayor that he hoped the West Jackson Street project could serve as a pilot project for others throughout the city. Desirable affordable housing has remained a nagging concern for community leaders. It also was among the reasons citied by elected and informal leaders in Tupelo when 2010 Census data showed nearly flat growth in the city while northern suburbs experienced a significantly larger spike in population growth.
Reed and other proponents of multiple neighborhood revitalization efforts say the city would benefit by taxpayer investments through increased property taxes paid for new housing, along with creating more housing options for people who might consider moving outside of the Tupelo.
Loden said property acquisition for the redevelopment project will likely end in the current fiscal year, while infrastructure improvements will continue through the 2015 fiscal year. Along with the apartment complex, the city or NDC has bought a handful of properties in the area, including land at 905, 1103, 1105 and 1124 West Jackson Street, and 1105 and 1117 Chapman Drive.
While current Mayor Jason Shelton supports the West Jackson Street redevelopment effort, don’t expect similar projects during his time in office. He said he’s generally against using tax dollars to buy real estate but approves of the West Jackson Street project because crime and blight had seeped so much into the major city corridor between the Tupelo Regional Airport and downtown.
“I don’t think we should dip into our reserve funds to make real estate transactions,” Shelton said Friday. “With that said, I’m firmly convinced the West Jackson project is a great thing and will benefit the city of Tupelo.”
Instead of taking part of the city’s $18.5 million in unrestricted reserves for neighborhood redevelopment, Shelton plans to ask the City Council to approve a plan using part of the tax dollars to pay down existing city debt.
Shelton said most people in the city agree that some neighborhoods have declined but they don’t agree on how to solve the problem. Opposed to future city tax dollars for neighborhood property purchases, he instead favors programs that favor tax credits, abatements and incentives for property owners to improve their houses and land.
Shelton has informally discussed efforts with Community Development Foundation officials to find alternative plans to property acquisitions to help improve neighborhoods. However, the mayor said no formal meetings are scheduled.
He said no timetable exists for him to come up with a firm plan to improve Tupelo neighborhoods, but he wants a solution that balances needs of the community with what the city can afford.
“Any way you slice it, you’re talking about expenditures of city money or revenue not coming into the city,” Shelton said. “I want to do something financially sound that will work.”