The Subway Lounge, Cock of the Walk, The Dock and Frank’s Famous biscuits.
These are Josh McManus’s memories of Jackson, Mississippi, a visit from many, many years ago.
Today, as the post-industrial problem solver and strategist boards a plane back to his home in Detroit,Michigan, community champions here hope he’ll remember a Jackson on the cusp of change.
McManus was the guest speaker for yesterday’s Team Jackson luncheon held downtown. With over 250 registered, attendees hoped to get a proverbial shot in the arm of fire and passion, a force everyone agrees is Jackson’s best ally.
Recounting his earliest days alongside the late Mai Bell Hurley, his mentor and friend, a champion for the arts in Chattanooga, McManus cited example after example of the eastern Tennessee town’s turn around. The parallels to Mississippi’s capital were eye-opening.
The city’s 18-35 year-old demographic was disappearing and the city by the river wasn’t seen as a 24 hour town. Artists had creativity but few business skills and those who were left brain savvy weren’t always so visionary. A dwindling older population even left the city’s opera in jeopardy. And popular live music? Forget it.
Through a program known as Create Here, McManus and Helen Davis Johnson, a program officer for arts and culture for the Kresge Foundation, brought about a a “five-year civic engagement initiative,” calling it “a large-scale experiment in small-scale urban development” that focused on minor projects, small investments and individuals.
And the results were astonishing. A 24 hour festival that included 3 am yoga and a parade is still going strong. Entrepreneurs Dan Rose and Max Poppel, described by McManus as “the unusual suspects,” built a hostel and bar. A candy maker needed a glazer and an artist needed a larger printer, both being held back in their potential because they were afraid to take the next step (they each got their wishes, by the way). When McManus was told an opera cost $200,000 to put on, Create Here instead paid opera singers $200 each and created the beer and music themed, Hops & Opera. That unusual evening brought first-time patrons out and older fans tearfully and magically closer than they had ever been to their opera before. And an old ice skating rink was turned into Track 29, a still-popular venue for concerts.
McManus says that program reached critical mass in Chattanooga and today, the cry of “remember the river” holds tight the vibrant downtown once thought to be a lost cause.
We Need Help
A reader, researcher and believer in the power of shared knowledge and experiences, McManus heard the call of Detroit, Michigan, the one-time automobile capital of the U.S. “If we can just get 7,500 to 15,000 college educated young people into downtown,” they said, “Detroit could be great once again.”
McManus and his team built D-Hive in 2012, a three year project whose welcome center “provided individuals with the information and resources to live, work, engage or build a business in the city.” D-Hive offered tours, maps of downtown, apartment finders — “anyway to make them fall in love with us,” McManus recalled.
D-Hive built a facade and sign improvement program to change the look of depressed areas, calling out the bloated, 12 week city sign approval process. D-Hive sought to equalize the application and awarding of small business loans and programs for the 85 percent African American population of the city. They gave small grants to business owners who would in turn help other small business others get a leg up like they did. McManus said the idea was never to do “one big thing, but a million little things.”
Detroit filed for bankruptcy just one year later, in 2013. At its estimated high point, the city’s population was around three million. Today, there are just over 600,000 souls who call the Motor City home.
And then there’s the capital that been invested by people who believe the city can be great again. Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (McManus’s boss), has bought into the Detroit 2.0 Vision — literally. He moved Quicken’s headquarters here and his Rock Ventures owns more than 60 properties, representing over nine million square feet.
Closer to Home
McManus wrapped up his time with his Jackson audience by talking about his Sunday afternoon walk around downtown. “Your city is incredible — beautiful!” he excitedly proclaimed. “The footprint of titans of industry is all over. The architecture and design, such palatial buildings that remind me of Washington, D.C. The iconic structures like the Greyhound station that mixes architecture with history. And the Sun and Sand Motel.”
But we have problems. McManus noted the blight and decay of many residential and commercial structures. Media fueled perceptions of an “increase in crime” are just that: a 24/7 repeat loop of brain overload not backed by higher numbers. Population decline and thus a diminishing tax base doesn’t help city infrastructure to be repaired, to grow and expand. So what can we do? This is the fun part.
McManus points back to his mentor, Mai Bell Hurley, who always believed you could never doubt the power of a small group. And he says he finds this to be true everywhere he goes. McManus called on group efforts as important but individual efforts as vital. “The next big thing is a million little things.”
Losing the “us versus them, suburban vs urban mentality” is another “next right step.” The city and suburbs are interdependent for taxation and commerce, McManus believes. They ebb and flow. And just as the core and periphery each have their pluses and minuses, McManus says individual neighborhoods should find and play off of their unique DNA, building each other up, with no need to duplicate each other.
During a question and answer session at the conclusion of the luncheon, an audience member asked McManus what it would take to bring his passion to Jackson. His answer may surprise you.
“There’s nothing special about me,” he offered. “I have no positional authority, I have no money. I just got mad and agitated enough in Chattanooga to work on what I knew mattered.” Jackson, he explained, is already home to changemakers who are poised to pour the gasoline of hope on the fire.
The problem with Detroit and other cities in similar shape is that the narrative needs to change. McManus talks Thomas Edison, who said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” “And it’s amazing how much work is related to belief,” McManus added.
In other words, it’s time to get your hands dirty.
Paul Allen Wolf is an advisory board member of Team Jackson and is the publisher of Find It In Fondrenâ„¢