Q & A: Executive Director Jim Wilkirson

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Wilkirson (center) at a recent luncheon for the Phoenix Initiative

Once a stagnant neighborhood without direction, Fondren has blossomed into a vital and thriving model for development in the capital city.

Without a doubt, the Fondren we know now would not be the neighborhood it is today without the hard work and dedication of Fondren Renaissance Foundation. FRF Executive Director Jim Wilkirson explains the role the non-profit organization plays in building a vibrant community.

What does Fondren Renaissance Foundation do anyway?

That’s the question I get asked most often. FRF is the driving force responsible for “thinking outside the box,” resulting in the nationally recognized revitalization of Fondren. We brought in developers when no one (considered) investing in Fondren. We are responsible for zoning that allowed for mixed use developments, making it possible for people to “live, work and play” in one area. We had the vision for certain types of buildings that would enhance the area. This vision lead to Fondren Corner and repurposing Duling School into a concert venue and home to restaurants and shops. We invested in bringing those into our community and when challenged, we rose to the occasion.

Because of FRF, area entities such as St. Dominic agreed to pledge their support in the early days, eventually leading to a host of others who recognized, appreciated and wanted to be a part of the evolving community. When tasked with saving the oldest residence in the city from being torn down and replaced by a new residential development, FRF led the charge to reclaim The Cedars and build programming that assured it of becoming an arts and educational facility for all.

Why do you think people come to Fondren?  

Number one, we have so much to offer. This is because of the “brand” that has been built by FRF through the years. Alongside merchants, restaurateurs and others, Fondren has become a destination. Where else can you get anything that you need within walking distance? Plus, it’s a local economy so we get the added bonus of making a difference in the lives of those around us while strengthening our area. To me, it takes constant promotion of the Fondren “brand” to keep our economy healthy and strong and we as FRF do that on a daily basis.

FRF’s largest event each year is the Zippity Doo Dah® Parade.  How much have you given to the hospital since its inception?  

This past year was another banner year for the parade and Fondren. It’s hard to believe that the parade is five years old. In that period of time, a little over $400,000 has been raised and given in the name of FRF and Fondren. Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital is the only children’s hospital in the state of Mississippi – right here in Fondren. We are extremely proud of that fact and want to promote it as much as we can.

That said, FRF is only the facilitator of the event and we don’t write a check from our account for those funds. It’s strange enough that one non-profit raises money for another non-profit, but that falls within the mission of our organization and promoting those in our area. We get credit for all that money raised through the parade but that money doesn’t come from “us.” Funds given from the parade to the hospital are raised from a number of events and people surrounding the parade and FRF only acts as the clearinghouse for the “official” donation. We are proud to be a part of the team raising the money and I wish that we had that kind of money to give, but it’s challenging enough to simply make our own budget each year. Let’s just say there are a lot of generous donors that give and raise money during parade season for the benefit of the children.

Is there any new programming focus for this year?  

The most exciting thing has been our recent partnership to help launch the Teen Trendsetter Program with The Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation. Jill Conner Browne approached me about helping find a way to get this into our local public school system and by working with the individual principals, we were able to gain the buy-in of the district.

This program matches high school seniors and juniors with first and second graders that are severely under-level in reading and gives them a mentor program that targets their reading skills. The success rate in other areas has been phenomenal and we hope the same will happen here. In all areas of the program currently across the nation, this is a public to public school initiative.

Of course, we always like to think “outside the box” in Fondren and we have done the same here with 10 public elementary schools and 10 public high schools, however, we are also responsible for launching the first private school to public school initiative in the nation under this program with Spann Elementary and Jackson Academy.  Spann Elementary serves the Fondren area so we are thrilled at the prospect and potential outcome of this program for our area children.

Fondren is thriving better than ever but the work of FRF is never done.

We are not a foundation blessed with untold riches and as a nonprofit, we desperately need and seek funds to carry out our daily and long term needs. Our task each day is to continue the progress of Fondren forward, including a host of special events that are free and open to the public. That takes an enormous amount of money. Apart from staffing, we pay for area hidden costs including insurance, security, marketing and promotion that most people never consider. We need the support and pledge of citizens, especially our Fondren neighbors, to keep FRF going. As a Fondrenite, no other nonprofit has had as significant an impact on your area than Fondren Renaissance Foundation.

How can you help?

Without your dollars, we cannot continue to move forward. As a resident or business owner, you should consider financially giving to the organization that has made your future brighter.

How do you make a contribution?  The easiest and quickest way is to log on to our website, fondren.org/donate. You can also make a donation payable to FRF and mail it to our office at 2906 North State Street, Suite 101, Jackson, MS 39216. We thank you in advance for your generous support.

Contact Wilkirson directly at jim@fondren.org.

© 2016, Fondren Renaissance Foundation