HomeNewsOPINION: Good to see city leadership dream big

OPINION: Good to see city leadership dream big

By Gabe Hart

For The Post

A quarter of a century ago, I was a freshman at Union University. Vann Drive was in its infancy and each time I would drive back to campus, I would see three pillars on each side of the road with the words “The Columns” beneath them. No one really knew what to make of those structures at the time, but that development turned into the biggest commercial area in Jackson and helped spawn Thomsen Farms as well as expansions of the original Columns development. 

Twenty five years later in present day Jackson, downtown is finally gaining traction. We have Turntable Coffee, LightTrap Books, Doe’s Eat Place, Peppermint Addie’s, The Ned; last week, I attended an art fundraiser at Havner’s Frame Shop. The Downtown Tavern has reopened and is flourishing. All of this growth reminds me of the way Vann Drive took off years ago, but Downtown Jackson is actually cool.  And, let’s not forget about the burgeoning culture of South Royal with the Blueprint Selfie Experience and Skillet Junction. No one can argue that Jackson doesn’t have momentum right now.

With growth and momentum, however, comes death and decay. Like in nature, resources are limited in the world of city planning – when one area grows, other areas suffer.

When I was growing up here in the 1980’s and 90’s, I spent a lot of time in and around Old Hickory Mall.  It could’ve been a summer afternoon at the mall movie theater where three bottle caps would get you free admission. I might’ve been playing WWF Wrestlefest in the Sears Arcade or across the street buying some baseball cards at Wilk’s Dugout. Today, though, the only time Old Hickory Mall crosses my mind is if there’s been a smash and grab or a parking lot carnival is set up out front. 

Just to the south of the mall is another space that’s a shell of its former self – the Jackson Plaza and the old Service Merchandise building. 

Last week – with much pomp and circumstance – Mayor Scott Conger announced the City of Jackson’s plans to purchase the property in order to demolish the building and engineer a master plan “to explore the possibility of constructing a convention center and arena to be located in the heart of our city.”

When that news first broke, I was skeptical. Does Jackson really need a convention center? Do we need an arena? What acts could we get to fill an arena here?  Shouldn’t we just focus on nurturing the growth of Downtown Jackson and continue to expand commercial opportunities out north? 

After my initial skepticism, though, I was reminded of something that happened last year.

My girlfriend and I stopped by the mall so I could buy a belt. It was empty for all intents and purposes. It took fifteen minutes for me to find someone to pay for my belt.  As we were driving back to my house, my girlfriend – who grew up in Jackson but now lives in Philadelphia – said 

“What do you think is going to happen to this area? There used to be so much more here.”

I had never thought about it. I’ve been here my whole life and when you see something every single day, it’s hard to be honest about how it’s changing. It’s like looking in a mirror each morning but only realizing how much you’ve changed when you see a photograph from years earlier. It hit me when she asked that question: this part of Jackson is a desert. 

Do I think a new arena and convention center is the best play right now? I don’t know, but I do know something had to be done, so why not go big?  Jackson has momentum; there’s growth happening. Everyone expects a population increase in West Tennessee with the arrival of Blue Oval City and whatever else it spawns in its wake. So, yeah, let’s go for it. But let’s also be careful.

There are lessons to be learned from our neighbors to the east and west. When people ask me where I’m from and I tell them Jackson, I always have to follow it up with “…right in between Memphis and Nashville.” 

As Jackson has grown over the last decade, I’ve seen characteristics of both cities in our progress. Let’s not lose our soul, though. Jackson has a special culture as the Hub City – there’s an edge to us. Memphis has done a wonderful job weaving its history into its progress. Nashville…well, let’s just say Music Row probably never envisioned so many skinny houses and condos. 

Mayor Conger’s announcement is exciting, but the execution of the plan is what’s important. If there was ever a time to swing for the fences, maybe now is that time.

Gabe Hart is a Jackson resident and Madison County native who’s mostly worked in education.

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