Adding Value

Like many mid-sized cities, Jackson, Miss., suffered its share of hard knocks during the economic downturn after the dot-com bubble burst. The city lost population, as well as business and industry. But the city administration refused to retreat. Instead, Jackson is in the midst of a revitalization program that is bringing new business, new families and renewed pride to the metro area. Last year, for example, the city issued more than 1,400 commercial building permits, removed 66 decayed and unsightly buildings and issued 1,010 new business licenses.

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr., has termed the renewal program “Making Jackson the Best of the New South.” Not only is Jackson home to the Mississippi state government but, with 184,000 people, it is the largest city in the state and the hub of a metro area with 425,000 people.

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One of the primary efforts underway is restoring the city's parks and recreation areas. With its central location and mild climate, the city is a natural for state and regional athletic events like softball and baseball, but five years ago Jackson's parks and recreation facilities were run-down and uninviting to event sponsors. All that has changed because of the city's renewed emphasis on renovating and upgrading parks and athletic fields.

Jackson spent more than $4.5 million in 2003 to fund major renovations to community centers, gymnasiums, golf courses, ball fields and 54 municipal parks. “City softball and baseball fields used to host four or five tournaments each summer,” says Ramie Ford, director of parks and recreation. “This year, we have 14 softball tournaments scheduled already, with an average of 33 teams per tournament. In 1998, the city's youth basketball league had 12 teams. This year, there will be 86 teams.”

Examples of major softball tournaments now held in Jackson include the American Softball Association (ASA) Men's Class “C” State Tournament, ASA Class C Southwest Regional Tournament, Women's Church National Tournament and the Baptist State AAAA Tournament for both men and women. “We have hosted the Mississippi state high school championships for the past three years,” says Ford. The city hosted the ASA national men's softball championship in 2001 and won an award for “Best Tourney Site.”

POSITIVE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC BENEFITS

“Five years ago, Jackson's city parks and athletic fields were in pretty sad shape,” according to Ford. “Our largest city park was leased to a private individual and had become mainly a hang-out for prostitutes and drug dealers. Smith Park, right in the heart of the city, was used mostly by vagrants and loiterers.”

All that has changed, and parks and playground areas have a new look, new equipment and increased usage. An original bond issue for $900,000 to renovate parks and ball fields eventually expanded to a bond issue of $7,000,000, along with additional grant money. Working with neighborhood groups, Parks and Recreation constructed new basketball courts, built new clubhouse facilities, installed new playground equipment and renovated athletic fields. Some $400,000 in new playground equipment was installed this spring.

The result: “Thousands of local citizens use the parks now, plus we have been able to attract a lot more state and regional events,” says Ford. “In 1998, it was estimated that parks and recreation events generated a $5 million economic impact for Jackson. Last year, that figure was up to $47 million. And that is based on visitors coming to the city from at least 100 miles away; that doesn't count the local spending.”

The city's nine swimming pools had six paid swim-lesson sessions in 1998. Last summer, it had 105 sessions. Just last fall, the city opened a full-sized championship tennis complex, with part of the cost paid by private donors. In fact, says Ford, the calendar for parks and recreation activities has gotten so full that Parks and Recreation publishes a full color “Leisure Service Guide” each winter that lists all the activities scheduled for the coming year, by month and by location.

Although usage fees cover only 20 to 30 percent of facility maintenance costs, they have increased as park facilities get used more. For example, Mynelle Gardens, a seven-acre site with distinctive garden and ornamental plantings, had been purchased by the city in 1973. It was renovated and upgraded along with the other park areas and now sees many more visitors in addition to being used as a wedding and reception location at a fee of $800 for four hours.

GREENING THE GATEWAYS

Two years ago, Mayor Johnson formed a “Gateways and Cornerstones Initiative” to revitalize 11 of the city's major thoroughfares and four key business development areas. The program includes street improvements, renewed emphasis on building codes and zoning ordinances, assistance with housing rehabilitation efforts, developing matching grants for façade upgrades, etc. The city has partnered with local power supplier Energy Mississippi, city neighborhood groups and community organizations, as well as individual donors to help fund improvements.

A primary element of the program is upgrading landscaping and increasing the amount of ornamentals and greenery along major streets and access routes. In many cases, this includes replacing some concrete medians with flowerbeds and shrubs. “The idea is less concrete and more greenery,” says Allen A. Jones, buildings and grounds manager for the City of Jackson.

Parks maintenance crews have planted flowerbeds in median and roundabouts at major street intersections on the city's outskirts. Along incoming highways, “Welcome to Jackson” signs sprout from raised flowerbeds. “The idea is to make the city more inviting to visitors and more appealing when they drive into the city,” says Jones.

Jones' responsibilities include oversight for park maintenance, including athletic fields, playgrounds and city cemeteries. He operates with an annual budget of approximately $4.6 million, directing the activities of 143 employees. His park maintenance division is responsible for 54 parks, 76 athletic fields (baseball, softball and soccer), two city golf courses (one 18-hole and one 9-hole) and six cemeteries, including one of more than 50 acres. His crews also handle right-of-way maintenance, including boulevard medians, plus more than 100 city-owned lots in redevelopment areas.

Jones came to Jackson two years ago after spending 23 years as recreation director for Oxford, Miss., and then five years as parks maintenance director for Germantown, Tenn. He was the first minority elected to the board of directors of the National Parks & Recreation Association Southern Division in 1980. Jones was awarded the Harold E. Myers Award from that organization in 1998, as the top recreational professional in the Southern Division — again, he was the first minority to win the award.

USING PEOPLE AND EQUIPMENT EFFICIENTLY

In order to better utilize his personnel, Allen Jones “task organized” his park maintenance personnel into seven maintenance crews, each crew assigned to one of the city's wards. He has upgraded both equipment and training to improve morale and operating efficiency.

Workers use a 12-foot mower to cut ball fields and soccer fields as rapidly as possible. The downtown maintenance crew uses three compact zero-turn riding mowers to cut smaller parks where walks, trees and shrubs require greater maneuverability. These mowers are equipped with grass handling systems to pick up leaves, debris and litter, nearly eliminating the need for hand raking.

“Smith Park used to take maintenance workers two weeks to hand rake and clean up,” Jones says. “Now, with the riding mowers, we come in and get it all done in a half day.” The increased efficiency has enabled the crews to keep the park cleaner and, as a result, many downtown people are using the park, eating lunches there, reading, walking, etc. “We even have had weddings in the park,” he adds.

A side benefit of using the mowers to pick up debris has been near elimination of motorist claims for broken car windows. “Using regular mowers and side-discharging clippings always created chance of a rock getting thrown out of the mower and hitting a car window. This led to numerous claims against the city and, although they weren't large, they were a nuisance. Now, we pick up debris and litter with the clippings and it all goes into bags and gets hauled away.”

Another area where Jones has saved money is in maintaining grass in medians, along street rights-of-way and in the city cemeteries. “We have started spraying these areas with growth retardant to reduce mowing requirements. Last year, we spent $60,000 for spraying these areas. I estimate we saved at least twice that amount because we reduced having to mow these areas every 10 to 12 days to cutting them twice in four months.”

Jones pulls all his maintenance crews together and cuts these areas in a couple days, two or three days after the growth retardant has been applied. Then the job is done for at least two months or more. He says the growth retardant does not brown the grass and is perfectly safe; it just slows growth enough to minimize mowing needs.

Another major improvement in Jackson city parks has been the addition of new flower beds and ornamentals. The Park Maintenance Division now purchases flowers and the crews do most of the planting themselves. Jones says his crews will plant $50,000 worth of flowers around the city this year. “It's all part of our investment to beautify Jackson.”

Jones has created several incentive awards to improve department morale. Every month, he and his supervisors choose an “Employee of the Month.” The winner gets a certificate and use of a special parking space right in front of the maintenance headquarters. At the end of the year, one of the employee-of-the-month winners is selected as “Employee of the Year” and announced at the staff Christmas party.

He also created special recognition certificates for workers who tackle special projects or go out of their way to carry out maintenance jobs. These “Atta-Boy” and “Atta-Girl” awards are handed out personally by Jones, sometimes on the recommendation of his supervisors.

The last Thursday of every month, Jones calls all his workers together for a safety meeting, and the special awards are presented during these meetings. Thursday mornings on a weekly basis, two crews come into maintenance headquarters to view videos on equipment maintenance.

All these activities serve to strengthen staff morale, plus providing a forum for announcements and dissemination of information. They also provide a setting for workers to voice concerns or complaints, either in open meetings or privately to Jones or one of his supervisors.

MORE COMMUNITY BENEFITS

Jones says there is another financial benefit to the improved parks and play areas, not as visible as out-of-town tournament teams or local usage fees, but just as important to the local economy. “When people aren't comfortable using local parks and playgrounds, they stay away, probably at home. But, when Johnny or Suzy gets involved in local summer sports, the whole family tends to be involved. They buy gas to get from home to soccer field and back. They buy uniforms, shoes, equipment and accessories for the kids. Because their schedule is busy, they tend to eat out more. All that benefits local businesses and the local economy.

“Even more important, we get more of the city's young people involved and on the athletic fields instead of out on the street.”

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer who lives in Lincoin, Neb.

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