Chris Jackson creates new jobs in the city
At age 44, Detroit native Chris Jackson represents the new wave of entrepreneurs who impact the city with major building developments. The married father of two sons was a Detroit City Council staffer who worked on casino regulations.
After moving to the private sector, he was a partner in the Greektown Casino, where he gained much of his business acumen. Jackson also credits mentoring by, and partnering with, a trio of legendary Black movers and shakers who have left their imprint on the city’s economic and business landscape: First Independence Bank CEO Don Davis, the late cable TV and casino king Don Barden, and his partner in his current building project, James Jenkins, Jr., CEO of Jenkins Construction.
Operating as Queen Lillian LLC, Jackson and Jenkins have broken ground on an $18 million facility, which they have leased to Wayne State University to house a department of the medical school – and Jackson says more Midtown office developments are in the works. In the coming months, his projects will create nearly 300 new jobs in Detroit.
How did you become confident that you could be a developer?
I’ve had great mentors and exposure. In the 1980s, I worked for my uncle, Detroit Councilman John Peoples, by day—and at night I helped my aunt run Juanita’s Lounge. So, I was exposed to city leadership there as well. Also, Howard University instilled a sense of community building and of giving back. We were not taught to be arrogant, but we were taught we could accomplish anything.
How did you hone your skill set to operate as a developer?
I graduated from Howard in 1990 with a degree in Political Science and had interned for Congressman John Conyers in Washington D.C. for four summers. Later, I worked for Councilman Gil Hill and learned more about navigating city hall and City Council, plus the planning and development office, and the land acquisition process.
Did you encounter roadblocks in this current building project?
We had worked with the Detroit Medical Center on a plan to build and lease to them, and had an agreement with the city to buy 5.2 acres of land. The Kilpatrick administration had relationships with DMC leadership, so they allowed the DMC to buy that land, and we filed suit because we knew we were in the right. The settlement was a compromise for us to instead buy the adjacent three acres, and that’s where we’re building the medical facility that WSU has a 25-year lease on for its medical school.
So, do you have to “know someone at city hall” to get deals done?
There’s a difference between “knowing someone” and knowing the process. You have to know how the system works and how to navigate it. There are public hearings, documents that have to be filled out and filed a certain way. You have to know City Council procedures and how to move permissions from department to department.
Have you seen changes in operations at city hall as administrations change?
No matter who is in office the day-to-day business is conducted by employees who know the ordinances and the city’s internal operations. However, there have been improvements. For example, the current director of the building department has built in some new efficiencies in partnership with Compuware, to streamline the permit process and put it online. I would say the (customer service) culture has also improved as leadership has changed hands.
Who acts as your personal support system?
My business has a spiritual component. I look to my family and my church family, to my Howard network. Don Davis taught me finance. He was my first partner in Queen Lillian LLC, which is named for both of our mothers. I’m active in Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and I mentor youth in the Kappa League. I’m active with the Booker T. Washington Business Association, as well as the NAACP and the Black Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been blessed with mentors. I tell young people: “When you join these organizations, get a mentor.”
ALICIA NAILS IS DIRECTOR OF WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY’S JOURNALISM INSTITUTE OF MEDIA DIVERSITY.