Though the general consensus is that downtown Jackson is dead, a hairdresser and an architect stand strongly in opposition. Architect Robert Polk owns the 736 South President St. building, where he and his family reside in one of the three completed loft-style units. He has owned the building for the past nine years. Currently, aside from the three living units, there are several businesses in the building, including a photography studio.
"I decided to buy this building because it was neat and it had a long history in Jackson," he said, adding that it was a building worth saving. This building formerly served as a garment factory in 1928. Then it became the Dickie's factory in the 1950s, and the Mississippi State School of Architecture used it while remodeling their current building on Capitol Street.
Polk plans to convert the rest of the building into more loft-style apartments. "It will be something like you would see in New York," he said. When complete, there will be around eight to 10 units in the building starting at $800 per month for around 1,200 square feet.
One of the first tenants of the building was hairdresser Joanie Thompson. Thompson has been a resident of Jackson for the past 35 years and said that living in the 736 building has been her best residential experience. "I have been here for seven years, and I love it," she said. "I have the freedom and space to just breathe. Some people might have reservations about having one big area for your bedroom and living room, but once you get used to it, there is no turning back."
Polk said that he has a waiting list of people itching to live in this building. One of those is Curnis Upkins, Jr., 22, a Jacksonian who works with the Hinds County Economic Development District. Upkins said, "I like that the building is like a warehouse on the outside but inside there are beautiful lofts." He also believes that there is a great need for development downtown.
"We need residential areas in downtown, period," he said. "We need people living, working and shopping in this area to revitalize the city."
City Councilman Ben Allen said that developing the downtown area is one of the most important things that the city could do. "That is why I am so for the convention center," he said. "We have to do these things. Robert has a great project, and I hope that it works out."
Downtown development is one reason Polk wanted to renovate this space. "When people move away for the downtown area and began to expand the outer realms of the city, the city suffers," he said. Though Polk has been working on this building for a number of years, he has had trouble getting financing for this type of project.
"Many of the local banks have refused to get behind a project like this," Polk said. Subrina Larry, manager at AmSouth Bank's Meadowbrook branch, said that their bank "does finance this type of project, but the procedure does depend on the size of loan that the owner or owners is looking to borrow."
Polk said, though, that he hasn't gotten very far with Amsouth and other banks he has approached. "I would be glad to talk to any banker who wants to help, but I need to see some proof before I get too involved again," he said. He has gotten offers from an out-of-state bank that agreed to finance the development if he pre-leases the units.
Polk said he has reservations about this because in order to pre-lease the units, they have to be finished within a certain time frame. He would have to take time away from his regular business to do this. "Also I believe that once this building is finished, it will be filled within a year," he said. "So why should I have to pre lease?"
The idea of "mixed-use" development seems to be catching on in the city, though, with the current success of the Fondren Corner building and the announcement last fall that Duckworth Realty plans to renovate the old Electric Building, a 10-story structure, into a "mixed-use" project that includes office space, luxury residential space and ground-floor retail. The Ironworks building at South Street and Gallatin contain several New York-style lofts as well.
Polk's Web site displays Thompson's apartment: http://www.facilitydesign.com