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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

$2M mansion proposed for JSU presidential house

A proposed $2 million on-campus home for the Jackson State University president will be part residence, part showplace and part meeting space.

And at that price, the home will be the most expensive dwelling for any of Mississippi's university leaders.

Some say the price is steep and in sharp contrast to the low-income housing in much of the inner-city area near the Metro Parkway. But many still welcome its construction.

"It's always better when your leader is staying on campus," barber Oliver Adams, 71, said at his Adam's Corner shop near JSU. "This will be a nice addition to the area."

But JSU junior Rebecca Johnson, 21, a nail technician at the barbershop, isn't pleased with the timing. "That money shouldn't be dispersed until all the other things are done," said the Grand Rapids, Mich., native. "We need more parking spots before they build a house."

The push for a new residence for president Ronald Mason and place to welcome visitors and court donors comes as Jackson State begins a $50 million fund drive for scholarships and academic needs.

"It will be a good recruiting tool," Mason said during an interview last week about the proposed 8,000-square-foot residence featuring a public area downstairs and a four-bedroom living quarters upstairs.

JSU is likely to use state and private-sector dollars for the residence to be located behind the former president's home on College Park Drive, Mason said.

JSU received the state College Board's OK in December 2005 to spend $250,000 in funds from the Legislature for architects, engineers and others to get the project started.

Mason said he should know more about final costs and ways to finance the home within six months as other campus construction projects wind down. The $24 million student union will be finished in spring 2008.

An artist's rendering of the home now hangs in the school's administration building.

Plans to build a home for Mason's family and use it as a meeting place to entertain JSU visitors, alumni, donors, faculty, student leaders and others were put on hold last year.

Other campus building needs took priority, Mason said. On Saturday, noisy construction continued on a new JSU School of Engineering building across the street from the building that was formerly the presidential home.

The cost for JSU's new house could double the more than $1 million spent when Alcorn State University in 1999 built a residence for then-President Clinton Bristow Jr., who died last year.

Mason said rising post-Hurricane Katrina construction costs along with design changes are behind the price tag.

A state building official didn't dispute Mason's assessment.

"We discovered after the hurricane came through that our bid prices were up 25 to 30 percent," said architect Heyward Bell of the state Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management. It has leveled off the past six months, he said.

Bell, who helps oversee JSU projects, said costs can vary widely based on the type of materials used and amenities included.

Mason, his wife and their son, Kenan, a Murrah High student, would gain more space. A new home at JSU would more than double the size of their 3,500-square foot-home near Jackson Academy. Mason uses it primarily to entertain visitors after Tigers football games.

JSU purchased the home for $300,000 a few years ago. The home will be sold once another one is built, Mason said.

The on-campus home was last lived in by interim JSU President Bettye Ward Fletcher in 1999. The home was built in 1973 for $145,000. In recent years, the 6,632-square-foot "guest house" has been used as a JSU conference center.

Whether the new home is used to recruit faculty or host receptions for donors, Mason said the facility will be put to good use and could play a role in boosting the school's new $50 million fund drive.

Other administrators agree.

"I certainly think it would be a great venue for us to host events," said Evangeline Robinson, JSU's director of institutional advancement.

Without a presidential house on campus, JSU officials go to the TeleCom Center, the general-purpose Room in the student union and local hotels for such activities.

"It's time we upgrade," said senior Vertis Johnson, 22, of Utica. "We should be at the same level as all the other colleges. We definitely need it."

Jackson State freshman William Brewer, 18, of Saginaw, Mich., sees other advantages of having the president live closer. "He (Mason) would be around more and see more problems and stuff."

Brewer said a $2 million investment will pay off if JSU leaders raise millions more.

JSU isn't the only Mississippi school exploring housing upgrades.

Mississippi Valley State University officials say there's talk of a new presidential home within five years to replace an outdated and cramped residence constructed on the Itta Bena campus in 1951.

At the University of Southern Mississippi, leaders expect to renovate the presidential home built off the Hattiesburg campus in 1979. Improvements are expected later this year after a new president is named in April. Current president Shelby Thames is stepping down to return to teaching.

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