I’ve never considered Jackson to be a big city. In fact, I’ve always thought Jackson has felt like a small town – a place where everyone seems to know about you even when they don’t. There are two sides to that type of familiarity – one that breeds contempt and one that opens its arms. I’ve experienced both.
The truth about Jackson is that it’s larger than you think. According to the latest census, nearly 70,000 residents live within the city limits, and, conservatively speaking, the actual number is closer to 80,000, given the lack of census participation in the area.
Since 1990, Jackson has grown by nearly 20,000 residents. Out of 499 cities in Tennessee, Jackson is the 9th most populated. The city limits cover almost 50 square miles and are bordered by seven different counties. Jackson ain’t as small as it feels.
Cities like Jackson – cities that are actually much bigger than they feel – can cut both ways. They can be large enough to provide multiple amenities but still intimate enough for someone to feel known and seen. On the other side of that small-town feeling, though, are the factors that are resistant to change, as evidenced by the stagnation of local leadership we’ve had until recently.
For as long as I’ve lived here – all 44 years of my life – Jackson has organized itself in my head as four different sub-communities existing within the city itself: North Jackson, Midtown, East Jackson, and South Jackson.
Each sub-community has its own character and distinct cultural vibe. And as close as they are to one another, the stark contrasts between all of them are hard to ignore. Because of this, the city can sometimes feel splintered or disconnected, which is why this week’s announcement of Hub City Central was so important.
This past Wednesday, Scott Conger (City Mayor), AJ Massey (County Mayor), Marlon King (Superintendent), Pete Johnson (School Board Chairman), and Tina Mercer (Community Leader) each grasped the handle of a modified shovel, dug slightly into the ground, and flicked a bit of ceremonial dirt in the air to commemorate the groundbreaking of what promises to be a historic venue in Jackson – Hub City Central.
Along with a brand new football stadium for JCM that includes a turf field and a jumbotron, the facility will also have a regulation track and a plethora of state-of-the-art concession stands. More importantly, HCC will be situated in a part of town that is desperate for the right kind of revitalization – a part of town that can also be a connecting point for the entire community.
Seven years ago, it was believed that the doors to JCM had closed for good, taking with it one of the most storied athletic programs our city had ever seen. Even then, though, JCM didn’t have its own football field like North Side and South Side. JCM shared Roth Rock Stadium with Lane College. As the re-birth of JCM moves into its third year, HCC will finally be a stadium within walking distance of campus that the Cougars can call home. The importance of this development isn’t even about JCM finally acquiring a home stadium; it’s much bigger than even that.
With any type of growth in a city, there will be ebbs and flows of population and development. As Vann Drive began to be populated with commercial developments in the late 90’s, it was only a matter of time before other parts of the city would feel the strain and stretch of businesses and consumers migrating to the northwest part of the county. After the tornadoes in the early 2000s, a heavy focus on investment began in the downtown area. A few years later, The Lift and Jackson Walk were built, and now we’re finally seeing the fruition of that direct attention pay off as multiple downtown businesses have opened in the last few years.
On the flip side of this exciting surge, however, are parts of town where gaping economic holes have been left. The Old Hickory Mall has been hemorrhaging stores for years; the area around the mall is essentially made up of empty buildings with boarded windows. East Jackson has also been overlooked, with a few attempts at opening new businesses sputtering to a stop a few months after they open. This is why the vision and intentionality of local leaders are so important and why being on the same page is vital to the success and growth of ALL of Jackson.
Nearly a year ago, Mayor Scott Conger announced the city’s plans to buy the old Service Merchandise building next to the mall to explore the possibility of building a convention center or entertainment venue in the area. I loved the idea for this as soon as I heard it because it addressed an area of town that had been dying for a while and gave it the newfound energy of potential. I also believe that it makes the announcement of the HCC even more impactful.
Like the investment in the old Service Merchandise property, Hub City Central establishes a foundational point of growth for a part of the community that has been overlooked; it sends the message that the school system, the city, and the county are on the same page and genuinely do care about the people living east of Highland. While it will allow Jackson to host various athletic competitions and track meets at a state-of-the-art facility, it also sends a positive message of investment in the community by JMCSS, and the beneficial ripple effects across East Jackson will be felt for decades to come.
When I saw the picture of Mayor Conger, Mayor Massey, and Superintendent King collectively holding the five-handled shovel to break ground, it renewed my hope for positive collaboration across the local government spectrum. When I saw the posts from City Council members and county commissioners who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, I couldn’t help but think we’re back on track after our summer of discontent. Because if Jackson is finally going to move forward, to really grow and progress, we all have to dig in the same direction, even if our handles aren’t always connected.