By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EDWARDSVILLE — Call it a $20 million salute to human dignity — that’s how much Edwardsville benefactor Mannie Jackson is prepared to spend on a project that could transform the community’s Main Street in the next two years.
As the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities prepares to open Dec. 1 in the former Lincoln School — where $4.5 million is being spent on renovations — plans are also in the works for major expansion of that project.
Jackson has acquired multiple properties along North Main Street and is quickly moving on plans for a state-financed conference center, a privately built hotel and a three-story parking garage.
The parking garage will be built on the opposite side of North Main, at what is now the former, vacant Rusty’s Restaurant, which could be razed as early as this month, officials say. The garage would be set back from Main Street with the idea of luring potential business development in the front of it.
Ed Hightower, the retired, longtime Edwardsville school superintendent, was named in August to be executive director of the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities Foundation, which is collaborating on the project with Lewis and Clark Community College.
Jackson, 76, bought the vacant Lincoln School — a historic black school, badly in need of repair — in 2008 for $600,000 and donated another $200,000 in 2012 for the creation of an endowment and the Center for the Humanities.
The school was donated to Lewis and Clark Community College, and the college’s board and President Dale Chapman agreed to put $4.5 million in life-safety funds into the renovation of the school.
Since then, nearly $7 million has been raised to support the center through the center’s foundation, which continues to raise funds through donors.
The project has quietly been evolving in the past year, with Jackson pursuing a much-larger, world-class center of study. Last month, a stunning architectural drawing was publicly released, encapsulating the overall vision.
Just northwest of the school, a circular conference center is planned that could seat 1,000 to 1,200 people. Backers are seeking state financing and confident they will get it, despite the state’s dire financial shape. The site for the conference center is now a vacant lot.
“The conference center will be Lewis and Clark’s even though we’re all working to get the funds,” Hightower said. “And we are continuing to meet with private donors and business leaders who have an interest in making this a reality.”
Further northwest on Main Street and adjacent to the conference center would be a multistory STEM center, an existing brick building that will be retained but converted for use. It would incorporate science, technology, engineering and math into the study of humanities.
A privately run hotel would be built adjacent to and even further northwest of the STEM center, he said.
The land that has been acquired includes some vacant parcels and some small homes or homes used for business that will eventually be razed. The area is zoned for commercial development.
“Mannie Jackson has those properties in that whole area under ownership,” Hightower said. “He’s planning to put in personal money, somewhere in the neighborhood of about $20 million, to develop this.”
A rendering by AAIC Architects of Collinsville, shows the concept as one long, coordinated development.
The work will be done in phases and either the hotel or the conference center could be next depending on state funding of the conference center, Hightower said.
“The goal is to have everything up and operational by 2017,” he said.
Asked if that was too-ambitious of a timeline, Hightower smiled and said: “You’ve got guys with a proven track record,” referring to a myriad of successful projects in which the principals have been involved.
The paths of Hightower and Chapman have crossed before on projects, including the conversion of the former Wagner Complex into LCCC’s Historic N.O. Nelson Complex in Edwardsville. Hightower is now operating from a small office in that complex until the construction is complete at the Center for Humanities.
The city has been cooperative at every juncture, Hightower said, noting that it approved the demolition of an old trailer court behind Lincoln School for parking last year.
“It’s to the city’s benefit to support this to the degree that they can. And they have been most cooperative,” he said.
Documents of the foundation show the hotel and conference center will have a predicted $81 million in economic impact and create 846 jobs. The center would bring thousands of local, national and international visitors to hear major speakers, the foundation says.
Humanities is broadly defined as academic study of human culture, but Jackson’s goal is for the center to become a core of communication about understanding people and their differences.
“This country has become so polarized and there is a sense that you can say anything, do anything without thought to consequences,” Hightower said. “Mannie’s position is he wants to promote the level of conversation across this country about respect, about civility, dignity, understanding — and forgiveness. He thinks this will be somewhat of an incubator. We would bring in major speakers to lead these discussions.”
The foundation board has locked in a world-class speaker next spring. Hightower said. The speaker’s name will be publicly released in November, he said.
Jackson’s humble upbringing and his rise in the business world were profiled in a biography and documentary, “From Boxcar to Boardrooms,” a tale of overcoming odds, starting with his birth aboard a train car in Illmo, Mo., and his youth spent growing up in Edwardsville, where, among other things, he attended Lincoln School and went on to basketball stardom at Edwardsville High School in the mid-1950s.
He became a member of the famed Harlem Globetrotters and years later bought the team after success in the business world, including a long stint as executive at Honeywell, Inc. Today, Jackson maintains residences in Phoenix and Las Vegas, while maintaining ownership of the Globetrotters.
Jackson was sought out to buy the old Lincoln School by the president of the Lincoln School Foundation, Herman Shaw, who was concerned about the building’s condition at the time and the need to preserve it. Jackson bought the building and sat on it until the idea for the Center for the Humanities evolved.
Hightower, who was a board member at both LCCC and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, has known Jackson for decades, going back to the former’s time as a college basketball referee. A few years ago, Hightower introduced Jackson to LCCC President Dale Chapman, who at the time had just received an Endowment for Humanities grant and was looking for a use for it.
Hightower said there was “not one particular moment” that led to the current project, but a telling one took place at Hadley House in Edwardsville, the school district’s administrative offices, when part of the “Boxcar” documentary was being filmed. Dale Chapman and his wife, LCCC Vice President Linda Chapman, had been invited to watch and heard Jackson speaking about growing up during a segregated era.
“There was one moment when he was talking about when he was playing basketball and could not eat at certain restaurants or stay in certain hotels and how that made him feel. (Mannie) had said he was not interested in reliving it and didn’t want anyone else to have to go through it,” Hightower recalled. “That may have been the catalyst, as we started to talk more about how we could frame this (humanities) process.”
The center is designed as a major educational outlet for people of all ages. There will also be summer activities for youth development, in collaboration with other area organizations.
Hightower said he has met with Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Robert Daiber about the center’s work and hopes to draw the county’s students, as well as students from the local colleges, who could get internships at the center. Research done through the center could be eligible for grant funding.
Bringing in major speakers to influence the conversation will be a big part, he said.
“We’ve gotten away from the value system of family and respect, treating people like, simply put, you want to be treated. There has to be some type of anchor, an organization in place that can cause these types of conversations to migrate out across the country and get people thinking again,” Hightower said. “We’re not hoping to change the world, but we are hoping to be an incubator to have these kinds of discussions, at all levels.”
The school will be the site of a public open house Dec. 7.
Bruce Unterbrink Construction Inc. of Greenville is the general contractor. Work was done to stabilize the walls and keep the original brick and many of the building’s features. Inside, the building has been transformed for offices, a 140-seat ballroom and a 60-seat conference room. Space can be rented for meetings and parties, and the catering services are going to be handled by Bella Milano restaurant, which also handles the N.O. Nelson complex, Hightower said.
“We’re starting to get a lot of inquiries about utilization of the building,” he said.
Jackson gets back to Edwardsville frequently and checks in via phone and email virtually every week, Hightower said.
“It is so exciting to work with Mannie Jackson,” he said. “He’s a real disciple of Nelson Mandela (the late, South African leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize). He’s not about reliving the past. He’s about trying to make things better. He’s passionate about making this happen.”