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Saving a Mall - and a Community

Feb. 28, 2012

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Susan Margaret Barrett

They say that every picture tells a thousand words. Sometimes, though, even a thousand words aren’t nearly enough.

Consider the framed photo on the office wall at the Jackson Medical Mall, located at the intersection of Bailey Avenue and Fortification Street. It’s actually two photos, taken by satellite, of the Medical Mall facility itself.

On the left, one sees an overhead shot depicting nearly one million square feet of desolation. There’s a virtually empty parking lot, and what looks like a very large and very deserted building. This photo was taken in 1996, right around the time that the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation acquired the property.

To the right, a satellite photo from around 2008 shows a very busy scene: hundreds of parked cars, several new buildings...a bustling hive of activity. The contrast is striking.

But to get a more complete picture of what kind of remarkable place the Jackson Medical Mall has become — a first-class medical center that provides health care to people from all walks of life — one has to talk to the man who dreamed it into being.

Dr. Aaron Shirley already had a highly distinguished career in 1996. He won a 1993 MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) for his pioneering approach to rural and urban health care. By the mid-1990s he was working as the director of the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center (an institution he helped to establish in 1970) when he had a fateful lunch with his friend, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson.

“I lived in this area and had seen the Jackson Mall deteriorate,” recalled Shirley. “It had once been a thriving retail center, and it had become practically empty. My organization needed more space, and so did University Medical Center.

“So I took Reuben to lunch at Piccadilly Cafe in the Jackson Mall. He wanted me to serve on the board at Tougaloo College, my alma mater. I told him I didn’t have a lot of time, but I would do it if he would help me to acquire the mall and convert it into a healthcare facility.”

Shirley remembers Anderson’s response well: “Aaron, what would you do with all this space?”

But two weeks later, Anderson called Shirley back and said he would help. A long and occasionally difficult process of discussions with potential partners and financial backers ensued.

The biggest task was to put together a group of tenants for the building. UMC was already on board, and other institutions soon followed suit. Jackson State University agreed to relocate its school of public health to the facility. Tougaloo College promised to move several classes to the mall, and the city of Jackson made plans to relocate their Departments of Water, Human and Cultural Services, and Parks and Recreation.

Shirley, Anderson, and Dr. Wallace Conerly and Dr. Ted Woodrell of UMC worked together to assemble the necessary partners and financing, which included $3 million to purchase the building and $20 million to pay for the required renovations. The first clinic, UMC’s Ambulatory Care clinic, opened in January 1997.

The Medical Mall now is home to numerous clinics, medical support firms, city offices, classrooms, and retail outlets. It was the first development of its kind and now serves as a national model.

The Medical Mall is also self-sufficient. Since about the fifth year of its existence, the revenue taken in by the facilities there has exceeded the annual payments on the Medical Mall’s debt. The remainder gets reinvested in UMC, JSU and Tougaloo. The success of the Medical Mall has also proved to be an enormous boon to the surrounding community.

“The original founders of the Medical Mall always saw it as a two-part operation,” said executive director Primus Wheeler. “First and foremost, it would provide quality health care to the underserved populations in the local community, in a safe and secure environment so that anyone would feel comfortable coming here.

“But we also wanted it to be an engine that would drive the revitalization of this community. I had seen the decline of this neighborhood since the 1970s, and we all wanted the Medical Mall to serve as an anchor for further development.”

The Medical Mall Foundation has converted several properties outside the main mall building, including a branch of Liberty Bank, and a Sav-a-Lot supermarket (the only full-function supermarket in the neighborhood).

“We’re very proud of the supermarket,” said Wheeler. “It’s got a range of health food options and fresh produce, which fits into our preventive, holistic approach to health care.”

A community center and park are in the works, and the Foundation is also purchasing and renovating houses in the nearby Homestead Heights neighborhood, with the aim of supporting a strong residential environment. The first two homes will go on the market in March of this year.

Wheeler has been at the Medical Mall Foundation since 1996 and has served as its executive director since 2001. He’s one of many staffers who have stayed loyal to the original vision.

“I only planned to be here six months, and now it’s been 15 years,” he said. “I’m really proud of the fact that you can directly impact outcomes and see that impact on a daily basis. You also get the chance to develop young leaders within our staff.

“For example, Lori Greer started here as a contract accountant. Now she’s the chief operating officer.”

“I have grown so much with this organization,” said Greer. “I moved up to fiscal officer, and then comptroller, then CFO and now COO. I’ve seen how this organization has grown and progressed.

“It became more than just a job a long time ago. I never thought I would have the opportunity to be part of something that would benefit so many lives.”

Dr. Aaron Shirley, whose vision and leadership made the Jackson Medical Mall a reality in the first place, also takes understandable pride in its success.

“It makes me feel pretty good,” he said. “It’s freed me up to dream a little more, too. We’re looking at innovative ideas from all over the world, including an idea from Iran. They have a system of ‘health houses,’ which has had great success in reducing the disparities in care quality between rural and urban communities. We are working on testing a modified version of this plan in the Mississippi Delta.

“Health care is all I know, and my whole career has been about improving access to quality care.”